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Remains of Thonotosassa soldier at center of military mortuary probe

The casket of Marine Sgt. Daniel Angus, 28, arrived at MacDill Air Force Base on Feb. 4, 2010. His widow, Bonnie, second from the left, looks down at it as family members comfort each other.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times (2010)

The casket of Marine Sgt. Daniel Angus, 28, arrived at MacDill Air Force Base on Feb. 4, 2010. His widow, Bonnie, second from the left, looks down at it as family members comfort each other.

TAMPA — As the family of fallen Marine Sgt. Daniel Angus mourned, strangers honored him. They held flags and saluted his casket when it passed through Tampa in a January 2010 motorcade.

Nearly two years later, the Armwood High graduate's funeral preparations are at the center of a federal investigation that concluded the U.S. Air Force has mishandled troops remains.

The Air Force dumped the cremated partial remains of at least 274 American troops in a Virginia landfill and sawed off part of Sgt. Angus' left arm without his family's permission, according to reports from the Air Force and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog agency.

The Air Force, while declaring an end to such practices, concluded the military did nothing wrong by removing part of the sergeant's arm so he could be dressed in uniform.

Angus' parents and sister disagree, a family attorney said. They're horrified about his "mutilation," and learning of it has led to a fresh wave of grief, attorney Mark O'Brien said.

They do not plan a lawsuit, O'Brien said, but they want those responsible to be fired and face criminal charges.

They're also upset the military kept it secret for more than a year, not telling them until Nov. 4, as federal investigations triggered by three whistle blowers were about to become public.

"Imagine: Your own government hides something from you," the attorney said. "And your son fought and died for that same government."

Angus, of Thonotosassa, loved fishing, hunting and riding his four-wheeler through muddy fields. But he also loved the Marines. He joined the military in 2003 and was twice deployed to Iraq. He planned to serve as long as possible, friends say.

He was serving his third tour, this time in Afghanistan, when, on Jan. 24, 2010, a blast killed him and two other Marines in the Helmand province.

He was 28. He left a young daughter, Kaitlyn, a wife, his parents and a sister.

Angus' limbs were devastated by the blast. His face was recognizable, but the remains of his upper left arm were fused perpendicular to his torso.

Still, in February 2010, Port Mortuary director Quinton Keel decided his body was viewable and should be dressed in military attire.

Several others at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary disagreed. They said the body was not viewable and should be encased in a full cloth wrap, a report states.

But Keel insisted otherwise, according to the Office of Special Counsel report.

When Angus' fused humerus wouldn't fit into the uniform, two embalmers asked Keel what they should do. He instructed them to remove the arm and place it in Angus' pant leg, the report states. James Parsons refused, but the other embalmer did as told.

Parsons took his complaints to supervisors in the Air Force and, eventually, joined two others in reporting several problems at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary to the watchdog agency.

The sergeant's family hopes to one day thank Parsons for that.

"It wasn't a hard decision to make, as far as I'm concerned," he later told the Associated Press.

Keel told investigators he thought he was acting according to the family's wishes.

The Air Force states that Angus' mother, Kathy Angus, had signed a paper giving the military permission to prepare and dress the body.

But when she signed off on that, she never expected what would follow, O'Brien said.

The family did not intend to have an open casket, he said, so the measure was unnecessary.

He thinks one of two things happened: Either the Air Force "truly believes the word 'dresses' means they can mutilate a body," he said. "Or they cut off his arm, didn't ask permission . . . and now they're trying to cover their tracks."

Many civilian mortuary experts agree that family permission is needed before removing a bone, according to the Office of Special Counsel report.

Keel is licensed through the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, which reported that "specific permission from the family would be necessary" before a bone is removed.

A Marine Corps official reported that permission is required even to shave a mustache or beard.

But the Air Force called its position "unique" and said that the potential impact on a family must "weigh heavily" before initiating contact.

Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff, said in a prepared statement that it is the military's obligation to treat its fallen with "reverence, dignity and respect."

"That is our solemn mission," the statement reads. "We regret any additional grief to families that past practices may have caused."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the Washington Post and Associated Press. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Remains of Thonotosassa soldier at center of military mortuary probe 12/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 8, 2011 10:45pm]
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