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Military families split on mishandled remains

Nov. 9, 2011 - 08:12PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 9, 2011 - 08:12PM  |  
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WILMINGTON, Del. After public disclosure Tuesday that Dover mortuary employees sawed off an arm of one Marine killed that same month without family permission, some parents were split on the emotional issue of what measures are appropriate to memorialize their children who died in combat.

When Chris Smith's son arrived at Dover Air Force Base in a flag-draped case, the Hornell, N.Y., man was told Marine Lance Cpl. Zachary D. Smith's body was not viewable.

The 19-year-old Marine was killed Jan. 24, 2010, by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, which blew off one leg and badly mangled the other.

To the surprise of his grieving parents, the base's mortuary employees were able to make the corporal's body presentable for an open-casket funeral.

"We got to observe him after being told there was nothing to observe," Chris Smith said. "You don't know how grateful I was to see my boy."

Cpl. Smith was one of at least 36 members of the military killed in January 2010 whose remains were transported to Dover Air Force Base, the sacred entry point for more than 6,000 U.S. service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade.

Melinda Kane, of Cherry Hill, N.J., whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremy N. Kane, died Jan. 23, 2010, in an Afghan suicide bombing, said the family of the Marine in question should have been informed of the problem before the limb was dismembered.

"It had to be horrible for that family to find out that their wanting to view the body ends up doing more damage to their body in the long run," Kane said.

Air Force spokesman Todd Spitler said Wednesday that the family of the Marine whose arm was sawed off was notified after an internal investigation was completed earlier this year.

Decisions by mortuary staff in Dover are made under "difficult" pressures, Spitler said.

"I cannot overemphasize in terms of the sad reality of ... wartime challenges that can present the folks at (Dover Port Mortuary) in having to make these 24-7 difficult decisions in how to perform restorative actions on our fallen," Spitler said.

The round-the-clock and out of sight work of the base's Mortuary Affairs Operations Center was in the national spotlight this week after the disclosure of a grisly report detailing alleged misconduct at the mortuary. Among the problems highlighted in an Air Force Inspector General's report were two instances of missing body parts and the alleged mishandling of other remains.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a government clearinghouse for federal employees to report misconduct, concluded there was "gross mismanagement" of the mortuary's operations in a scathing counter report sent to the White House on Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered a Pentagon review, due in 60 days, of an Air Force Inspector General's investigation, which found flaws in the administrative procedures but concluded no laws were broken.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said he also wants to speak to members of an independent panel, to determine what additional steps will be appropriate.

After his office received a letter from one of the whistleblowers in December 2009, Carper said he was "surprised, disappointed and anxious" to ensure an investigation would quickly get underway. The Department of Defense Inspector General quickly started an investigation, which was later turned over to the Air Force's inspector general, according to Carper's office.

Carper said he believes the inappropriate activity at the mortuary has stopped and that best practices are now being followed.

"Clearly the operation at the Air Force mortuary was not perfect, and we learned that from the whistleblowers, and every effort is being made to make it better or as close to perfect as it can be," Carper said.

The most glaring complaint, prompted by an employee whistleblower, revealed that mortuary staff sawed off the mangled left arm of a Marine in February 2010 to fit him into his uniform.

Mortuary staff did not seek permission from the Marine's family to cut off the arm, prompting an employee to make a formal complaint against then-Port Mortuary director Quinton "Randy" Keel.

"Mortuary officials made the decision to do the restorative process to fulfill the family's wishes to have their fallen viewed for final viewing," Spitler said.

An Air Force Inspector General's report released Tuesday concluded no laws were broken and that Keel's actions were "consistent" with Department of Defense regulations. A report by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel countered that the Air Force's findings "are not supported by the evidence presented and thus do not appear reasonable."

Keel and two superiors have since been demoted or reassigned to different jobs at the Dover base or Pentagon.

The Marine, whose identity remains unknown, died in combat in Afghanistan the same month Smith and Kane's sons perished in battle.

Eleven Marines died in Afghanistan in January 2010, according to a database compiled by the Military Times newspaper. The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal on Wednesday attempted to contact the families of other Marines who died in Afghanistan.

Some were outraged to learn the Marine's arm was sawed off without family consent or consultation.

"In my mind there's no justification for that without notification of the family," said Leonard A. Smith, an Army scientist from Clarksburg, Md., whose son, Marine Sgt. David J. Smith, died Jan. 26, 2010, from injuries sustained in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. "To me that disgraces this person."

Livengood writes for The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal; Gaudiano writes for the Gannett Washington bureau.

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