Cremated body parts of some victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were disposed of in a landfill by a contractor to the U.S. military, a Pentagon advisory panel found.
The remains from the attack on the Pentagon and the plane crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, couldn’t be identified and were cremated and sent to the military’s mortuary in Dover, Delaware, the report released today found. The report didn’t indicate any connection to victims of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
The disclosure came from an independent review panel examining the practices of the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, the main U.S. entry point for the remains of thousands of troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report said the “gross mismanagement” in handling the remains, including disposal of body parts in landfills, stemmed from a “lack of clear command authority and supervision.”
President Barack Obama has been briefed about the review and “strongly supports the Pentagon’s efforts to make needed systemic structural changes so that these types of incidents never happen again,” according to an e-mailed statement from White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Carney said in the statement that the administration is “deeply concerned” about the reports. “The United States has a solemn obligation to compassionately and professionally care for fallen service members and their families, and those we tragically lost on 9/11,” he said.
In the case of the Sept. 11 victims, body parts were cremated, placed in sealed containers and then incinerated by a biomedical waste contractor that wasn’t named in the report.
An inquiry by the mortuary’s management later found “there was some residual material following incineration and that the contractor was disposing of it in a landfill,” according to the report.
“We don’t think it should have happened,” retired Army General John Abizaid, chairman of a subcommittee of the Defense Health Board, which conducted the mortuary review, said today at a Pentagon briefing.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said they hadn’t been aware that any remains of Sept. 11 victims had been sent to a landfill.
“This is new information to me,” Donley said at a separate Pentagon briefing. He also cited a new policy, put in place in 2009, that calls for portions of remains that are cremated to be retired at sea.
“It’s been three years since there’s been a change in policy, recognizing that prior practices were not appropriate,” Donley said.
The review panel urged an overhaul of management for the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, which has received the remains of thousands of U.S. troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some body parts were lost and some incinerated partial remains of service members were deposited in a landfill, according to earlier investigations.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be done there to correct problems that we saw,” Abizaid said. “It’s important to understand these problems need to be corrected right away.”
The panel called on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to create a new command position in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. It also urged Donley to create “a new flag officer level command” to oversee Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations.
“Training is insufficient across Mortuary Affairs,” the panel said, in recommending that training for case managers, casualty assistance officers and others “be increased and standardized.”
Panetta, in a written statement, said, “These recommendations will strengthen the chain of command, improve oversight and help reduce the risk that these problems will occur again.”
An Air Force review last year found that three senior officials had displayed “gross mismanagement” at the mortuary by losing body parts and doing nothing to correct sloppy practices.
The report today also reviewed allegations that human fetal remains were transported from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to Dover “in containers that were inappropriate and did not meet regulatory standards.”
The panel found the containers met regulatory standards, though they weren’t “typically used for this purpose.”
The appropriate containers are now in stock “and the issue is resolved,” the panel said.
“It is imperative that policy, structural, and procedural solutions capture and reflect lessons learned from a decade of war and that these lessons are not lost for the next generation of fallen warriors,” the report found.
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