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Panel investigating mishandling of military remains to meet

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue December 13, 2011
U.S. Air Force investigators say the remains of military personnel were mishandled at Dover Air Force Base Mortuary.
U.S. Air Force investigators say the remains of military personnel were mishandled at Dover Air Force Base Mortuary.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Service members' body parts incinerated, buried with medical waste
  • Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base handles remains of returning war dead
  • An earlier report found mismanagement at the mortuary

Washington (CNN) -- A congressional panel investigating claims the Dover Air Force Base Mortuary mishandled the remains of hundreds of fallen U.S. military personnel will meet for the first time Tuesday.

In November, U.S. Air Force investigators announced they had found "serious misconduct" and "gross mismanagement" in the handling of remains at the base.

The findings came after the Air Force conducted a year-long investigation into 14 allegations of wrongdoing made by whistleblowers involving the remains of four U.S. service members killed in action, the Pentagon official said.

The panel, which is being chaired by retired Gen. John Abizaid, has been given "full authority to review all aspects of mortuary affairs to ensure we are meeting the highest standards of care for our fallen." Department of Defense spokesman Capt. John Kirby said. Abizaid retired from the Army in 2007 after leading U.S. Central Command the final three years of his 34-year military career.

Last week, the Air Force admitted that it sent more sets of military personnel remains to a Virginia landfill than it originally acknowledged.

Backtracking on initial information about how it handled the remains of American service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force said the cremated body parts of hundreds of the fallen were burned and dumped in the landfill.

Earlier, the Air Force said only a small number of body parts had been buried in a commercial landfill and claimed it would be impossible to make a final determination of how many remains were disposed of in that manner.

The Washington Post broke the story, and the Air Force now confirms that body fragments linked to at least 274 fallen military personnel sent to the base mortuary were cremated, incinerated and buried with medical waste. That procedure was in place between November 2003 and May 1, 2008. The Air Force also said that 1,762 body parts were never identified and also were disposed of, first by cremation, then by further incineration and then buried in a landfill.

Congressman Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, Thursday accused the Pentagon of what he called "willful blindness" in not acting faster to identify and correct the problems and fully report them.

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"For years, this has been handled unceremoniously and insensitively and, I would say, dishonorably," Holt said in a telephone interview. He said he had been asking the Pentagon for months about information about Dover, on behalf of a constituent whose husband was killed five years ago.

"They don't get it. They don't understand the degree of dishonor involved in all of this," Holt said.

Last month, the Defense Department told the congressman that exact numbers could not be determined. "Without individual case-by-case review, the exact number of Service-directed disposition of subsequent remains cannot be determined," said a fact sheet sent to Holt in November. "It would require a massive effort and time to recall records and research individually."

When bodies are not intact -- for instance, in the aftermath of a crash or explosion -- a body may be released to the family before some parts have been identified by the Air Force Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Families can elect to be notified when parts are identified or leave it up to the military to dispose of them appropriately. Since the policy was changed in 2008, the unclaimed body parts are buried at sea.

Holt pointed to how the United States spends millions each year searching for the remains of service members missing in action from previous wars, for instance in Southeast Asia.

"That makes us proud to be an American, that we would do that," Holt said. "It is a level of response that honors our soldiers."

The mistakes at Dover send a different message, Holt said.

"It sends shudders to think that we engage in this kind of desecration," he said.

But at the Pentagon, aides to Panetta said he is satisfied with how the Air Force responded in regard to the landfill policy and new information about how many of the American fallen were involved.

"I think the secretary is comfortable with the way the Air Force has handled this," said Kirby.

CNN's Barbara Starr and Charley Keyes

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