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A Times Editorial

Scandalous treatment of service members' remains

For want of a simple act of humane courtesy, a family already grieving the loss of a loved one in combat has endured the additional emotional insult of learning that the remains of Marine Sgt. Daniel Angus of Hillsborough County were defiled by indifferent military embalmers at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base. The revelations come in the wake of disturbing disclosures that, until the practice was halted in 2008, Air Force officials unceremoniously disposed of the cremated partial remains of at least 274 U.S. service members in a landfill. The legacies of Angus and the other troops who gave the full measure of duty to their country, only to have their remains mistreated, should not be stained by the gruesome treatment they received at the hands of Dover's mortuary officials. The Pentagon should vigorously investigate these grisly incidents and where appropriate prosecute any mortuary abuses to the full extent of the law.

Angus, 28, was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan by a bomb blast while on his third tour of duty, leaving behind a devastated family. And while he was laid to rest with full military honors, the survivors' despair only deepened when they learned embalmers at Dover never informed the family that in order to dress the body for burial they had sawed off the Marine's left arm — without their permission as required by military regulations.

Many military families, including Angus' mother and some of those whose partial remains wound up in a dump as a final resting place, sign a form giving the military permission to prepare and dress a body. But that permission was given in the now misplaced belief that troops who died on the battlefield would be treated in good faith by those charged with the solemn responsibility of preparing their bodies for interment. Still, family permission is required before any bone is removed from a body. A simple phone call from Dover mortuary officials to Angus' family discreetly and sensitively explaining there was a problem in preparing his body, while emotionally wrenching, would have been preferable to the trauma of learning how his remains were handled nearly two years after his death.

Disclosures over the treatment of Angus' body and the reprehensible disposition of the cremated partial remains came as a result of three whistle-blower complaints, which led to a federal investigation. As a result, cremated remains are now respectfully buried at sea.

A fallen warrior's sad journey to a final resting place should be marked by a bond of trust mandating that the government that sent him or her into harm's way honor the return home with uncompromised dignity.

Scandalous treatment of service members' remains 12/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 10, 2011 3:31am]
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