The Air Force dumped the incinerated partial remains of at least 274 American troops in a Virginia landfill, far more than the military had acknowledged, before halting the secretive practice three years ago, records show.
The landfill dumping was concealed from families who had authorized the military to dispose of the remains in a dignified and respectful manner, Air Force officials said. There are no plans, the officials said, to alert those families now.
The Air Force had maintained that it could not estimate how many troops might have had remains sent to a landfill. The practice was revealed last month by the Washington Post, which was able to document a single case of a soldier whose partial remains were sent to a landfill in Virginia. The new data, for the first time, show the scope of what has become an embarrassing episode for Dover Air Base, the main port of entry for America's war dead.
The landfill disposals were never formally authorized under military policies or regulations. They also were not disclosed to senior Pentagon officials who conducted a high-level review of cremation policies at the Dover mortuary in 2008, records show.
Air Force and Pentagon officials said last month that determining how many remains went to the landfill would require searching through the records of more than 6,300 troops whose remains have passed through the mortuary since 2001.
"It would require a massive effort and time to recall records and research individually," Jo Ann Rooney, the Pentagon's acting undersecretary for personnel, wrote in a Nov. 22 letter to Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.
Holt, who has pressed the Pentagon for answers on behalf of a constituent whose husband was killed in Iraq, accused the Air Force and Defense Department of hiding the truth.
"What the hell?" Holt said in a phone interview. "We spent millions, tens of millions, to find any trace of soldiers killed, and they're concerned about a 'massive' effort to go back and pull out the files and find out how many soldiers were disrespected this way?"
Senior Air Force leaders said there was no intent to deceive.
"Absolutely not," said Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for personnel.
This week, after the Post pressed for information contained in the Dover mortuary's electronic database, the Air Force produced a tally based on those records. It showed that 976 fragments from 274 military personnel were cremated, incinerated and taken to the landfill between 2004 and 2008.
An additional group of 1,762 unidentified remains were collected from the battlefield and disposed of in the same manner, the Air Force said. Those fragments could not undergo DNA testing because they had been badly burned or damaged in explosions. The total number of incinerated fragments dumped in the landfill exceeded 2,700.
Air Force officials said they do not know when the landfill disposals began. They said their first record of it is Feb. 23, 2004. The mortuary database became operational in late 2003.
The Air Force said mortuary leaders decided to end the practice in May 2008 because "there was a better way to do it," Jones said.
The military now cremates unclaimed and unidentified body parts and buries the ashes at sea.
Gari-Lynn Smith, the widow of an Army sergeant killed in Iraq, said she received an email in July from Trevor Dean, the mortuary director, saying that incinerated remains had been taken to landfills at least since he began working at Dover in 1996. Dean is one of the officials facing discipline for his role in the reported mismanagement at the mortuary.
Smith's husband, Sgt. 1st Class Scott Smith, was killed on July 17, 2006. In 2007, she began asking the military what happened to some of his remains that were identified after his funeral.
After four years of letters, phone calls and records requests, she received a letter from the mortuary in April stating that the military cremated and incinerated those partial remains and disposed of them in the King George County, Va., landfill.
"I hope this information brings some comfort to you during your time of loss," read the letter, signed by Dean.
Smith was furious. "They have known that they were doing something disgusting, and they were doing everything they could to keep it from us," she said.
Private contractors hired by the Air Force to handle the remains' incineration and disposal of the residue said they were unaware that they were transporting the ashes of humans.
"It's a moral thing," said Jeff Jenkins, the manager of the King George County landfill. "Someone killed overseas fighting for our country, I wouldn't want them buried, any part of them, in the landfill."