Federal investigators said Tuesday that they had uncovered “gross mismanagement” at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary that cares for America’s war dead after whistleblowers reported horror stories of lost body parts, shoddy inventory controls and lax supervision.
The Air Force admitted that the Dover mortuary misplaced a dead soldier’s ankle and another set of remains that had been stored in a plastic bag. Employees also sawed off the damaged arm bone of a Marine so he could fit in his uniform and coffin — but did not tell his family.
Military officials said the incidents resulted from the strain of handling thousands of dead bodies, some with gruesome injuries that made it difficult to prepare remains for burial.
But the sloppy handling of troops’ remains at Dover painfully undercut the military’s commitment to treat war dead with the utmost honor. “There is nothing more sacred, there is nothing that is a more profound obligation than treating our fallen with reverence, dignity and respect,” said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, who took responsibility for the problems.
The Air Force disciplined but did not fire the mortuary commander and two other senior officials. Some members of Congress called the punishments inadequate, and an independent federal watchdog agency said investigators should have pushed harder to assign blame.
The Air Force and the Army both investigated the complaints about Dover. But the Office of Special Counsel, a watchdog group that receives complaints from whistleblowers and protects them against reprisals, criticized the Air Force’s handling of the situation in unusually sharp language.