Dover mortuary landfill dumping: Congressman asked Pentagon about practice in Sept.
Craig Whitlock – (Washington Post) – November 11, 2011 – A New Jersey congressman wrote directly to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta two months ago to seek details about the Dover Air Force Base mortuary’s practice of dumping troops’ cremated body parts in a landfill but says he never received a reply.
The congressman’s letter raises questions about when Panetta learned that the mortuary disposed of cremated portions of remains at the King George County, Va., landfill. Panetta has said he was unaware of the dumping before this week.
Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), acting on behalf of a constituent whose husband was killed in Iraq and was prepared for burial by the Dover mortuary, said he sent a letter to Panetta on Sept. 16 “seeking clear and definitive answers” about the mortuary’s landfill practices. Holt said he had raised the issue a few months earlier with the Pentagon’s legislative affairs office but was “frustrated by a failure” to get a full response.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Friday that Panetta’s office had received Holt’s Sept. 16 correspondence and that staffers “have been working to collect the information required to answer the questions in the congressman’s letter. We will, of course, provide a thorough response as promptly as possible.”
Little said Panetta was first briefed on the issue Wednesday.
At a news conference Thursday, Panetta said he had been kept informed about a broader federal investigation into problems at the Dover mortuary but had been unaware of the landfill arrangements until The Washington Post reported on them the day before.
“I did not know that, frankly,” he said.
“I think that it happened back in the past,” added Panetta, who took office July 1. “I know they’ve changed that procedure now, but nevertheless it’s something we should look at.”
The Dover mortuary handles the remains of American troops killed overseas. The Air Force said that it ended the landfill dumping in 2008 and that the ashes are now buried at sea in ceremonies overseen by the Navy.
Air Force officials have said they dumped only cremated fragments or portions of body parts that were unable to be identified at first or were later recovered from the battlefield. Family members had authorized the military to dispose of those portions.
The Air Force said the body parts were cremated, then incinerated, and taken to the landfill by a military contractor. The manner of disposal was not disclosed to relatives of the troops.
In his letter to Panetta, Holt asked why the ashes were trucked to the landfill and not interred at Arlington National Cemetery. He also asked whether the human remains had been mixed with incinerated medical waste, and he sought information on which military contractors were responsible.
As of Friday, Holt said, he still had not received answers from Panetta’s office.
“I thought there would be some straightforward explanation that we could get fairly quickly,” Holt said in a telephone interview. “Evidently this has been harder for them to answer.”
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