Panetta: Air Force to review Dover penalties

(AP, ABC7) – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he has ordered the Air Force to take a second look at its decision to discipline, but not fire, three supervisors at the military mortuary where some war remains were mishandled.

Panetta said at a Pentagon news conference that he's told Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to report back to him after he re-examines the disciplinary actions.

Panetta also has ordered an independent review of how procedures have been improved at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, following an Air Force investigation.

Panetta also said the families of those whose remains were mishandled deserve an apology.

New reports emerged of how the remains of fallen service members were mishandled at the Dover, Del., military mortuary Wednesday.

The Washington Post reports that for years,{ }some dead troops’ body parts were burned and the ashes dumped in a Virginia landfill.

Families of killed service members were typically not told about this practice, the Post reports. Air Force officials told the paper " the procedure was limited to portions of body parts that were unable to be identified ... and which family members had indicated could be disposed of by the military."

In two cases, body parts were lost, the Associated Press reports.

Yet an independent federal investigative agency contends that the Air Force, which runs the mortuary, has yet to face up to all the faults in Dover's operations. The defense secretary's spokesman suggested on Wednesday that additional disciplinary action beyond what the Air Force has taken was possible.

After the Air Force on Tuesday disclosed the results of its investigation into mishandling of remains, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta directed a special review at the mortuary, to be completed within 60 days.

"Let me make very clear to the families of our fallen heroes that every step will be taken to protect the honor and dignity that their loved ones richly deserve," Panetta said in a written statement.

Three mortuary supervisors were punished for what the Air Force called "gross mismanagement." But no one was fired in a grisly case reminiscent of the scandalous mishandling and misidentifying of remains at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Panetta's press secretary, George Little, was asked by reporters whether Panetta was confident that people have been held accountable.

"I think he is someone who believes strongly in accountability for mismanagement, misconduct and wrongdoing. He is aware of the disciplinary actions that have been levied," Little replied. "He, I think, as is the prerogative of any defense secretary, leaves open the possibility for further accountability. So, we'll see."

The Air Force acknowledged failures while insisting it made the right decision in not informing families about the missing body parts until last weekend. That was months after the Air Force completed an investigation of allegations lodged by three members of the mortuary staff.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told a Pentagon news conference that he and the service's top civilian, Michael Donley, are ultimately responsible for what happens at Dover.

"There's no escaping it," Schwartz said.

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent investigative agency, said the Air Force had fallen short on accountability. That office forwarded the original whistle-blower allegations to the Pentagon in May and July 2010 and reviewed the subsequent Air Force investigative report.

The office faulted the Air Force for taking an overly narrow view of what went wrong at Dover between 2008 and 2010.

"Several of the Air Force's findings are not supported by the evidence presented and thus do not appear reasonable," the special counsel's office said. "In these instances the report demonstrates a pattern of the Air Force's failure to acknowledge culpability for wrongdoing relating to the treatment of remains."

On the next page: Air Force says it's possible remains were mishandled before 2008

"Everyone is aware in the department of these certain discrepancies between the two reports, and this is something that will continue to be worked," Little said.

He said the Air Force "did the right thing" by taking quick action to notify senior leadership and launching an investigation quickly.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said her office is investigating allegations by the three whistle-blowers that the Air Force retaliated against them in several ways, including an attempt to fire one of them.

The three whistle-blowers still work at Dover. They are James Parsons, an embalming/autopsy technician; Mary Ellen Spera, a mortuary inspector; and William Zwicharowski, a senior mortuary inspector.

There is no suggestion of criminal wrongdoing at Dover, and the Air Force said it found no evidence that those faulted at Dover had deliberately mishandled any remains. They attributed the mistakes largely to a breakdown in procedures and a failure to fix problems that had been building over time.

As gruesome as the revelations appear, Schwartz acknowledged that it's possible that mistakes also were made before 2008, during a period when U.S. troops were killed at even higher rates in Iraq. Other Air Force officials said on Monday they knew of no prior cases of mishandled remains at Dover.

"I cannot certify with certainty that prior performance met our standard of perfection," Schwartz told reporters.

A total of four families affected directly by the investigation were told of it last weekend by Air Force officials.

Families of fallen service members may contact the Air Force toll free at 1-855-637-2583 or e-mail at if they have questions about this investigation or Air Force mortuary operations.