WASHINGTON — Investigators have found "gross mismanagement" at the US military mortuary that receives the country's war dead, with body parts lost in two cases and remains of others mishandled, the US Air Force said Tuesday.
After allegations from whistleblowers at the Dover Air Force base mortuary, an Air Force investigation found two "portions of the remains" of fallen troops were lost and other problems at the morgue, said General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff.
The commander of the mortuary, an Air Force colonel, and two civilian officials were disciplined over the episode but were not sacked, Schwartz said.
While the three supervisors had failed to meet the high standard required, the mistakes were not "a deliberate act," he said.
The general said he and the civilian head of the Air Force, Michael Donley, took personal responsibility for the mistakes at the mortuary.
"There is nothing more sacred... than treating our fallen with reverence, dignity and respect," said Schwartz, looking solemn and his voice cracking with emotion. "This is tough stuff."
Three civilian employees at the mortuary alerted authorities to sloppy handling of remains at Dover in complaints filed last year.
The Air Force investigation found that one dead Army soldier's ankle was lost and that flesh belonging to one of two airmen killed in a F-15 crash was also lost, according to the Washington Post, citing details of an Air Force Inspector General's report and a separate government agency probe.
In another case, mortuary workers were preparing the body of a dead Marine killed by a roadside bomb for a funeral and sawed off a protruding arm bone so that he could be put in a dress uniform. But the mortuary staff failed to consult his family beforehand, officials said.
The Dover mortuary has received the remains of more than 6,300 dead troops mostly from the wars Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.
The mistakes at Dover echoed a scandal that erupted last year at Arlington National Cemetery, the country's hallowed ground for war dead, with investigators finding cases of misidentified remains and mismanagement.
Following an Army probe, the bungling at Arlington is now the subject of a criminal investigation.
In the Dover mortuary case, the Air Force's probe was reportedly at odds with the findings of the Office of the Special Counsel, an independent government investigative agency.
The special counsel rebuked the Air Force, charging that it failed to take the accusations from whistleblowers seriously and failed to sufficiently punish senior officials who were responsible, according to the Post.
At Tuesday's press conference, Lieutenant General Darrell Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and service, acknowledged that one of the whistleblowers was fired after alleging problems at the mortuary but said the employee was later reinstated.