The United States Air Force secretly used a landfill site to dispose of the incinerated remains of hundreds of troops killed in action during the War on Terror, it has been revealed.
Figures made public yesterday show that partial remains of 274 fallen men and women were sent to a site in King George county, Virginia, between 2004 and 2008. Their families, who had given permission for the remains to be disposed of in a "dignified" manner, were never told of the practice.
The scale of the scandal, in The Washington Post a month ago, is far larger than previously thought. In addition to 976 identified body fragments, Pentagon records show that a further 1,762 unidentified battlefield remains, too badly damaged to be subjected to DNA analysis, also ended up in the landfill.
Officials say they have no plans to contact families of the troops to inform them of the fate of their loved ones. They say that establishing the identities of the affected men and women would be too expensive and time-consuming.
A letter from the Pentagon to Rush Holt, a Democratic congressman investigating the affair for a constituent whose husband was killed in Iraq, argues that determining whose remains went to landfill, "would require a massive effort" and involve examining the records of roughly 6,300 troops.
"What the hell?" Mr Holt responded in the Post. "We spent millions, tens of millions, to find any trace of soldiers killed, and they're concerned about a 'massive' effort to go back and pull out the files and find out how many soldiers were disrespected this way? They just don't want to ask questions or look very hard."A month ago, federal investigators published a highly critical report uncovering "gross mismanagement" of the morgue at Dover air base, the main port of entry for the bodies of fallen American soldiers returning to the US.
It found that body parts were left in freezers for months or even years. In one incident, the disfigured arm of a dead marine was removed with a hacksaw, without permission from his parents, so that he could fit into a coffin.
Whistleblowers who tried to bring attention to shoddy practices at the morgue were ignored or threatened with dismissal. The "pattern of failure" identified in the report extended to body parts of individual soldiers falling out of plastic bags, and getting mixed in with the remains of others. In a letter to a war widow uncovered by the Post, the mortuary director Trevor Dean said the practice had been common since at least 1996, when he started there.
That the scandal never came to public attention sooner is perhaps a natural by-product of efforts by successive Presidents to keep Dover air base from public scrutiny. During the first Gulf War, George HW Bush banned news coverage of the return of fallen troops there. The ban was continued by his son during the second Gulf War, and lifted by the Obama administration in 2009.
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