American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 29, 2012 – In the wake of a report issued yesterday by a panel that investigated operations at the Dover Port Mortuary in Delaware, the Air Force’s top officer said today that mortuary personnel followed policies in place at the time -- but which since have changed -- in handling some remains of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
Speaking at a Defense Writers Group breakfast, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz addressed the issue, which came to light at a Pentagon news conference yesterday when retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid answered questions about his panel’s investigation and report.
At a separate news conference later in the day, Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley declined to answer questions about the 9/11 victims’ remains, saying they had yet to read that portion of Abizaid’s report.
“Overnight, we’ve had an opportunity to review the report quickly and have had an opportunity to do some research on one of the fundamental questions that came up related to the remains of the fallen from 9/11,” Schwartz said this morning.
Air Force officials found correspondence dated in March 2002 from David Chu, then the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, providing guidance on handling the remains, Schwartz said.
The letter provided disposition instructions for three categories of remains of people killed in the 9/11 attack, he said. Category 1 was “for those portions of remains that were unidentified or unidentifiable or those remains that were identified subsequent to providing initial remains to the families -- and if that was the direction provided by the families -- that they be cremated and provided to the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery for burial,” Schwartz said.
The remains of the terrorists were Category 2, the general said, and those were transferred to the FBI as the letter stipulated.
“The third category were unidentified portions of remains that were comingled with other material from the event at the Pentagon,” Schwartz said. “The direction was to incinerate those remains in a fashion [that] at the time was accepted practice within the medical profession.”
That practice was to cremate the remains, further incinerate them and then pass them to a contractor to dispose of the remainder in a landfill.
The mortuary personnel followed those instructions, the general said.
Schwartz emphasized that he was not trying to justify the process, noting that the process changed in 2008, with all cremated remains now placed in a salt urn and given a retirement at sea.
“We have endeavored since 2008 to ensure that we treat the fallen with the dignity and respect and, in fact, the reverence that they and their families deserve,” Schwartz said.
“This is a no-fail business,” he added. “This is one of those areas where perfection is the only standard, and any deviation from that is not only a disappointment, it’s an affront to the families of the fallen and our expectations of ourselves.”
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said in a statement today that Defense Department officials are continuing to assemble records and information on the past practices of disposition of partial remains. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has directed that Pentagon officials offer a briefing to 9/11 families in the next few weeks to provide this information, he added.
“We fully understand and want to address the questions families might have about the previous disposition policy that ended in 2008,” Little said. “We intend to make the facts about that past policy known to the loved ones of those who died.”