WASHINGTON — Some cremated remains of people who were killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were disposed of in a landfill, the Pentagon revealed Tuesday, tracing the problems with the handling of remains at Dover Air Force Base back more than a decade.
A report by a panel that was tasked with reviewing procedures at Dover described "gross mismanagement" at the mortuary in Delaware where the nation's war dead arrive, including the mishandling of remains from an unknown number of victims of the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pa.
Remains that couldn't be identified or tested were cremated, the report said, and "then placed in sealed containers that were provided to a biomedical waste disposal contractor." Asked to provide further details, retired Gen. John Abizaid, who led the panel, testily said, "You'll have to ask the question elsewhere."
The panel was formed after revelations last fall that similar practices had been followed for some of the unidentified remains of American war dead. Pentagon officials said Tuesday's report was the first time they'd learned of the improper disposal of the remains of 9/11 victims.
The U.S. military has said the handling of its war dead is a sacred responsibility, but the panel's report found that Pentagon leadership "failed to recognize and address repeated issues that violated the standard of care." It made 20 recommendations for improving practices at Dover, including more training for mortuary workers and appointing a general to be responsible for it.
The report detailed several cases of mishandled remains or personal effects at the base. In 2006, the partial remains of four Navy personnel who'd died in a training plane crash were cremated and disposed of in a landfill. In January 2008, a Marine's widow received a $25,000 payout for "mental anguish" when her husband's personal effects were disposed of accidentally.
The panel also recommended that the military no longer perform full-body cremations. "We think that it's a bad idea for the Department of Defense to be in the cremation business," Abizaid said.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the bodies of at least 6,000 fallen troops from Iraq and Afghanistan have been transported to Dover Air Force Base.
Investigations into Dover began after whistleblowers reported mishandling of the remains of troops who'd been killed in the wars. The Air Force conducted an 18-month probe, concluding last fall that the partial remains of 274 service members had been incinerated and disposed of in a landfill from 2003 to 2008, when the Air Force said it had made reforms.
Last year, an investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, found "a pattern of the Air Force's failure to acknowledge culpability" for mishandled and lost remains. Earlier this year, a second Office of Special Counsel report revealed that some mortuary employees had retaliated against whistleblowers by suspending them from work.
After the Air Force and Office of Special Counsel findings, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appointed Abizaid to lead the independent review.
Panetta, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the senior leadership of the Army and Air Force were briefed about the report Monday, officials said. Panetta ordered Dempsey to implement Abizaid's recommendations.
The Pentagon has disciplined three senior officials so far. Tuesday's report didn't say whether further disciplinary action was necessary, and no top officials signaled that more penalties were coming.
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