Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Air Force body parts problem: Someone at the top should go over this

By Capt. John Byron (U.S. Navy, Ret.) Best Defense guest columnist CNN December 8: "Backtracking on initial information about how it handled the remains of American service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force now says the cremated body parts of hundreds of the fallen were burned and dumped in the landfill." The ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

By Capt. John Byron (U.S. Navy, Ret.)

Best Defense guest columnist

CNN December 8: "Backtracking on initial information about how it handled the remains of American service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force now says the cremated body parts of hundreds of the fallen were burned and dumped in the landfill." The cremated remains of at least 274 fallen service-members and those of 1,762 other unidentified body parts were unceremoniously thrown into a county landfill as waste.

By Capt. John Byron (U.S. Navy, Ret.)

Best Defense guest columnist

CNN December 8: "Backtracking on initial information about how it handled the remains of American service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force now says the cremated body parts of hundreds of the fallen were burned and dumped in the landfill." The cremated remains of at least 274 fallen service-members and those of 1,762 other unidentified body parts were unceremoniously thrown into a county landfill as waste.

Two aspects of this mess bother me greatly. The first, obviously, is the desecration of our warriors. Were an enemy to do this, we’d carpet-bomb them into oblivion. But this is the U.S. Air Force, the practice may go back as far as 1996, and the only accounting so far has been administrative action against three minor Air Force officials.

The second is that the Air Force is treating this primarily as a public relations problem, dribbling out the information only after three whistle-blowers brought it public, minimizing the scope until the facts ran them over, slow-rolling families seeking information, bemoaning and refusing to do the work to account for the individuals dumped in with last week’s garbage, and perhaps, according to one report, even fudging the truth on when the practice ended.

Astonishingly, Air Force now says, "I don’t think there is another federal agency in this town, I don’t think there is another institution in this country," that understands more about how to properly treat the remains of fallen troops.

My view: this callous incompetence in the treatment of fallen warriors is shameful, dishonorable, and unacceptable. It calls for the resignation of either the Air Force Secretary, its Chief of Staff, or both. It’s not a colonel’s problem.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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