Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dumping Of Remains Shameful

It is such a macabre story that many people might have tried to avoid it, but its scope demands it get a full hearing so that it may never happen again.

While the rest of the country was noting the solemn 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S.’s entry into World War II, the truth behind the military’s shameful, unofficial practice of incinerating body parts of fallen warriors and then dumping them in a Virginia landfill was coming to light.

The body fragments were entrusted to the military “to dispose of the remains in a dignified and respectful manner,” according to a report in The Washington Post, which has led reporting on this issue.

Instead, the remains, often body parts recovered after a fallen warrior’s formal memorial and cremation or interment had occurred, were cremated, then incinerated with medical waste and dumped into the King George County Landfill in Virginia.

The Post reports that military records show the partial remains of at least 274 American troops were handled this way. It also reports that although the practice was halted three years ago, there is no effort now to try to determine how many troops may have been involved or to notify families. When senior Pentagon officials reviewed cremation practices at the Dover mortuary in 2008, they were not told of the practice, according to the Post.

We know that terrible things happen when human beings are involved in anything: Corners are cut, supervisors are left out of the loop and unthinkable actions go unreported.

But once the facts begin to come to light, there must be full inquiry; there must be full disclosure; there must be accountability.

Still, in November when the Post reported the problems at the base, Air Force and Pentagon officials said it would be just too much trouble to search through the records of 6,300 dead troops to find out how many and who were disrespected.

“It would require a massive effort and time to recall records and research individually,” wrote the Pentagon’s acting undersecretary for personnel to Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who is pressing for answers on behalf of constituents.

After The Washington Post requested information from the Dover Air Force Base mortuary’s records, these preliminary numbers emerged. From 2004 to 2006, 976 fragmentary remains linked to 274 specific men and women were cremated, incinerated and dumped. Another 1,762 fragments that could not undergo DNA testing were treated the same way.

We have written before about the meticulous care taken with fallen troops about to be returned to families for honored burials. We know that the vast majority of those who handle the early remains are respectful and sober about their duties.

We admire the military practice of scouring battlefields and the sites of explosions and plane crashes to retrieve remains, often at danger to those doing the work.

But we are dismayed and astounded that, faced with this horrific practice of disposing of remains, which some evidence traces back into the 1990s, the military is not moving heaven and earth to discover everything it can about the practice and to notify families involved.

What is done cannot be undone, and some families may rest better not knowing a loved one was involved. But that should be their choice. Families who surrendered their loved ones to the military for respectful treatment should be able to request and to receive full and accurate information about this shameful business. It is the very least we owe those who died and those who suffered their loss to know what happened and to ensure such a thing can never happen again.


No comments: