SECAF to review disciplinary actions in AFMAO case
(U.S. Air Force graphic/Corey Parrish)
11/12/2011 - WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley reaffirmed a commitment to ensure that appropriate disciplinary action was taken in regard to the management and procedures at the Dover Air Force Base, Del., Mortuary.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asked Secretary Donley on Nov. 10 to review the Air Force's disciplinary measures and ensure they are adequate.
"There is no question the Air Force is accountable to our joint teammates and the families of the fallen for this critical and sacred mission," Donley said. "The lapses in our standards at Dover, which we strongly regret, are our responsibility to fix. I take very seriously Secretary Panetta's charge to ensure that appropriate disciplinary action was taken in regards to the Dover mortuary. Our review will be exceedingly thorough and rigorous, as our fallen and the families they leave behind deserve nothing less. Throughout the process, I want to reassure our military family that our fallen are being treated, and will continue to be treated, with the utmost reverence, dignity and respect."
Earlier this week, the Air Force made public a year-long investigation of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover AFB, the point of entry for U.S. service members who are killed or die overseas. The service implemented extensive corrective measures and improvements, and took action regarding three senior mortuary officials responsible for operations at AFMAO after employees complained about the handling of cases there.
The Air Force Inspector General began its investigation in June 2010. The investigation focused primarily on the handling of remains of four service members. The Air Force Inspector General's investigation was conducted in coordination with other federal offices and included nearly 50 interviews and an extensive review of mortuary operating procedures. Investigators found no evidence anyone intentionally mishandled remains, but concluded the mortuary staff failed to maintain accountability while processing portions of remains for three service members. While it is likely that disposition of remains was by an appropriate method, it could not be shown that it was in accordance with the families' directions.
Each family received remains of their service member for interment; the staff, however, was not able to ensure additional portions of remains were handled in a manner consistent with the families' instructions.
The Air Force determined senior AFMAO officials failed to provide proper management and corrective actions when they did not respond appropriately to indications that procedures were inadequate to prevent problems related to the tracking of portions of human remains.
Additionally, the Air Force investigation determined the mortuary staff could have communicated more clearly with the representatives of a sister service about restorative actions taken to prepare the remains of a service member, killed by an improvised explosive device, whose family requested to have their Marine dressed in his uniform. In addition, the investigation found that there were deficiencies in administrative procedures, documentation, and electronic record keeping. The public's health was not endangered.
"The investigation concluded that the mission was always conducted with reverence, dignity, honor and respect for all served through the facility," said Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff.
"However, the standard is 100-percent accountability in every instance of this important mission. We can, and will, do better and as a result of the allegations and investigation; our ability to care for our fallen warriors is now stronger," Schwartz said. "Throughout the past year new processes have been put in place to ensure the exacting standards are met every time."
Air Force officials have contacted family designated representatives of the four families directly affected, and others requested by those representatives, and discussed these matters with them personally. Each family team was headed by a general officer who, on behalf of the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force, expressed their apologies to the families for the additional grief this has caused.
Recently, it was reported that from 2003 to 2008, ashes of disassociated portions of remains were cremated and provided to medical disposition contractors who, after incineration, delivered them to landfills. This occurred when family representatives elected for the portions not to be returned to the family and authorized the mortuary to make disposition of them. In 2008, the Dover Port Mortuary adopted a better practice of retiring the portions at sea after cremation.
"The old practice was unacceptable and we recognized that and fixed it. We deeply regret concerns this may have caused families of the fallen," Schwartz said.
Air Force officals have requested, and the secretary of defense has directed, a separate independent assessment of the current overall operations of the Port Mortuary. The panel of the Defense Health Board will evaluate current operations.
The Dover AFB mortuary's staff consists of members of all branches of the military, including civilians and reservists. The staff includes mortuary affairs specialists, morticians and other technical experts. The staff operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and regularly responds to the trauma of war as staff members prepare the remains of fallen warriors under often-difficult circumstances. Since 2003, the mortuary center has prepared more than 6,300 deceased individuals for return to their loved ones.
Families of fallen service members may contact the Air Force toll free at 1-855-637-2583 or e-mail at email@example.com, if they have questions about this investigation or Air Force mortuary operations.
For additional information, media should contact Air Force Public Affairs at 703-695-0640 or after hours at 202-528-4929.