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The U.S. military takes it as a sacred obligation to honor their dead. Troops have risked their lives to bring bodies off battlefields. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded in every kind of weather, including hurricanes. So this next story is startling and, we should warn, may be disturbing to some people.
Personnel at Dover Air Base in Delaware dumped the remains of hundreds of troops in a landfill. Craig Whitlock, at the Washington Post, reports that 274 service members were cremated and disposed of this way. He joins us now.
Mr. Whitlock, welcome to the program.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Thanks for having me, Steve.
INSKEEP: We should remind people, Dover Air Base - that's where the dead come from Iraq and Afghanistan. So how would this happen?
WHITLOCK: As you know, Steve, these troops have been involved in a pretty catastrophic war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a lot of people are killed by bombs or die in explosions. And in many cases, what happens is the morgue at Dover isn't able to identify all the remains until after a funeral, or until a body is returned to the family.
What happened in these cases is the family had signed paperwork asking the military to dispose of these subsequent remains in a dignified manner. And what happened was, the Air Force would have them cremated and then incinerated, and then have the ashes taken to a landfill. The families were never told about this. Most people in the military had no idea this was going on - even high-level, senior members at the Pentagon.
INSKEEP: So we begin to understand how this would happen. It's not like an intact body - a relatively intact body arrives at Dover and is disposed of. We're talking about human remains, and the family had trusted the military to deal with it in a dignified way.
WHITLOCK: That's right. And in addition to that, there are a number of unidentified remains. Again, taken from a crash site, things like this, where the military wasn't able to conduct a DNA test to ascertain who they belonged to. These were also, unfortunately, disposed of in the same manner.
And this was an off-the-books operation. It wasn't authorized by military standard protocol or any written policies. And the Air Force has struggled to explain how far back it went, and how it came to be.
INSKEEP: Hasn't this emerged over a period of time?
WHITLOCK: It really just came out since last month. We were the first to report it. We got wind of it from a woman, a war widow from New Jersey - Gari-Lynn Smith, whose husband, Scott Smith, an Army sergeant who had been in a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq, was killed in 2006.
She started asking questions the next year, trying to find out what had happened to the remains of her husband. It took her four years to get any sort of response from the Air Force that acknowledged that parts of these remains ended up in a landfill.
INSKEEP: So that one case was revealed, and you've now revealed more. Was the Air Force reluctant to acknowledge the scope of this?
WHITLOCK: Yes, very much so. We had asked them, as soon as we heard about this, how extensive was this? How long did it go on? The Air Force said: We don't know how long it went on; we know it ended in 2008. Since then, they've buried ashes at sea.
But they wouldn't say. They said it was too difficult to go through their file to determine how many people may have been affected by this. We pressed them for information from an electronic database that, we discovered, is maintained at Dover. We asked them to look through certain fields of information. And a couple of days ago, they finally came up with the numbers that we published today.
INSKEEP: Well, what is the Air Force saying about it now?
WHITLOCK: They're saying they still don't know how far back this went. Their first records of it occurring were in 2004, but we also have emails and other correspondence from mortuary officials that indicate this was the practice going back to the '90s.
At the same time, there are committees in Congress that are conducting investigations into this practice as well as other problems at Dover. And Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has appointed a commission of independent public-health experts to take a look at operations at Dover. And this is something he has said he wants them to look at as well.
INSKEEP: So 274 may not be the final number.
WHITLOCK: I don't think so, Steve. I think there almost undoubtedly would be more. And even the Air Force has acknowledged that these are the ones that at this point, they have records of, and they can determine that there were at least that number.
INSKEEP: Well, Craig Whitlock, thanks very much for your reporting.
WHITLOCK: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: He covered the story with Mary Pat Flaherty. They're both with the Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.