As soon as officials at the Air Force Port Mortuary in Dover, Del., realized cremated and incinerated service member remains were being disposed of in a landfill, they changed the process, Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones said today.
Jones, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, discussed with Pentagon reporters the disposition of subsequently indentified remains.
Jones said Air Force leaders are sorry if the process has caused families any further anguish.
The prevalence of improvised explosive devices in today's combat -- everything from buried hand grenades to large bombs filled with hundreds of pounds of explosives - has complicated mortuary processes, Jones explained.
"The remains of many of our fallen are fragmented," he said. "We strive to return these fallen to their families as intact as possible."
This is often difficult and sometimes the armed forces medical examiner determines the remains are incomplete. A family member then signs a statement electing how to dispose of any subsequently identified remains, Jones said. "The family determines how the service will proceed if additional portions of remains are identified," he said.
In some cases, the family does not want to be notified if additional portions of remains are identified, Jone said, adding that the additional remains most often are small portions of soft tissue or bone fragments.
Prior to 2008, when families chose not to be notified of these remains, the mortuary disposed of them using "appropriate industry standards," Jones said. The remains were taken to a local funeral home for cremation. The cremated remains were then given to a contractor for incineration and subsequent disposal in a landfill. Remains of 274 service members were disposed of this way between 2003 and 2008, the general said.
"In 2008, the director of the Port Mortuary reviewed these processes and recommended to the Central Joint Mortuary Affairs Board that the services implement a retirement--at-sea option that was more fitting for subsequently identified remains," Jones said.
The retirement at sea is a dignified ceremony, and that has been the standard since 2008. The remains are cremated and placed in a sea-salt urn. The mortuary arranges with the Navy to have the retirement at sea.
Jones said the mortuary mission is to treat all remains with dignity, honor and respect. Mortuary employees also stand ready to help the families of the fallen. In 2008, mortuary employees were the ones who pushed for the change once they realized how the remains were being disposed of.
"It was employees at the Dover Port Mortuary who, on their own volition, came up with that suggestion, that recommendation, to make that policy change back in 2008," Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby told reporters today. "That wasn't something imposed upon them. It wasn't the result of some [inspector general] report. They came up with this on their own."
The Air Force has set up a hotline for families who have questions about the processes the mortuary used. It is 1-855-637-2583. Or families with questions can e-mail officials at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"We will be forthright, we will tell them everything we know about the disposition of their loved one," Jones said.
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