US widow exposes mishandling of remains

2011-12-11 21:00

Frenchtown - It took Gari-Lynn Smith more than four years to learn what happened to the final remains of her husband, an Army sergeant killed in Iraq.

The New Jersey widow never thought that knowing would be worse than not, or that her search would lead to the bottom of a landfill.

"I was told no one wanted my husband, so he was cremated with the medical waste and thrown in the trash," Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press this week from her home.

Her quest to find the truth of what happened to her husband's remains led to an even more disturbing revelation this week as the Air Force acknowledged it had dumped cremated partial remains of at least 274 troops into a Virginia dump - far more than previously acknowledged.

Her story, first told by The Washington Post, along with information from multiple whistle blowers about other mistreatment of fallen soldiers' bodies became the catalyst for an investigation that found "gross mismanagement" at the Air Force's mortuary in Dover, Delaware - the first stop on American soil for fallen troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's where the body of Sgt 1st Class Scott R Smith, a bomb-disposal technician, was flown in July 2006. Smith was killed after he stepped on a pressure plate above a roadside bomb as he worked to clear the area. Several limbs and much of his torso were lost in the explosion, his wife said.

Initially led to believe her husband's entire body was returned, Gari-Lynn became suspicious after being told she shouldn't ask to see the body before the closed-casket funeral. Later, she ordered copies of the autopsy and learned there were additional remains located, leading to more questions.

This spring, after years of pestering Air Force officials, she received a letter from the Dover mortuary telling her some of her husband's body was incinerated and sent to a landfill. It closed: "I hope that this brings you some comfort in your time of loss".

The Air Force later confirmed that other soldiers' remains were incinerated and then handed over to a contractor who took them to the landfill in shipments of medical waste.

Appropriate disposition

The Air Force said remains were shipped to the landfill only in cases in which the family had previously signed a form saying it didn't want to be contacted in the event more remains were found. Scott Smith's parents had signed the form in the days after his death.

The forms allowed the Defence Department to "make appropriate disposition" of partial remains that may be discovered.

Gari-Lynn said she understood why his parents signed the form, but that it never specified that the remains would be thrown away.

"I just don't understand how they get 'appropriate' and 'landfill' in the same sentence," Gari-Lynn said.

"I obviously was completely outraged, upset and hysterical."

Smith contacted Democratic Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, and together they pressed for more information.

The practice, which Holt believes goes back to 1996, was stopped in 2008, and cremated remains from such troops are now given a burial at sea, the Air Force said.

The Air Force disciplined - but did not fire - three senior supervisors at Dover, and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered a review of that decision.

Disrespect and insensitivity

"Nobody has ever apologised," Smith said. "I would like for them to sit across the table and look me in the eye and say that it was an appropriate disposition for my husband to be thrown in a garbage dump, mixed in with the rest of household garbage like last week's leftover meatloaf."

Holt said he was shocked at the military's response.

"They tried to minimise this and present it as a procedural error," Holt said. "I don't think they understand the degree of dishonesty, disrespect and insensitivity that's involved here."

Holt said the change of how remains are handled should be credited to the "persistence of Gari-Lynn".

Gary-Lynn said she owed it to the legacy of her husband - a man who helped stranded motorists in snowstorms and who wore a big, mischievous smile that "let us know that he knew something that the rest of us just didn't know or didn't get".

He was a kind man, she said, and a man who took on a job assignment that others would run away from because he understood the honour and importance in saving lives and honouring those lost.

"Scott would be completely disgusted," she said of the way the remains were handled. "If he were here, I believe he would be helping me in this fight."

  • Swapie - 2011-12-11 22:07

    Hats off to this woman.

  • monika.schweighofer1 - 2011-12-11 23:05

    It's in peoples mind only, that it brings closure to them if the remains of a loved one are at a certain place together. It is not the physical matter what counts but the spiritual part. The memory of a person is the main connection which is most important, not the body.

      ludlowdj - 2011-12-12 10:23

      Word of spiritual wisdom, which do not excuse the US military, the US Government or any other body of this sort of thing. One would expect the dead, especially those killed in defense of ones country to be treated with the necessary respect and decorum. a mass grave or spreading of ones ashes is of course totally acceptable, being disposed of with medical waste in a dump site quiet another.

  • Jim - 2011-12-12 20:42

    Has there ever been a better reminder of how we few, sacrifice our youth, our hearts, our souls, our mental health and in many cases our very futures and our lives, for so many who just don't understand, care or even want to know what it is we have done and do. We are a dark little cube in the back of their conscience that they never want to see. To rise up in Moral outrage you must have a collective Moral compass to guide you. Our nation has lost it's soul. Our nation is concerned with the rights of the few who disrupt and disrespect everything that has made us great. We would rather hear about Lindsy's new Playboy spread. Where have our values gone? What do we really care about? I love this country. But more and more I hate our leaders for their apathy and for their lack of courage. The pandering to special interest groups here and overseas. Usually to pad their own bank accounts. Time for a course correction. This landfill needs to be immediately closed. It needs to be covered over and declared a national cemetery. It is now hallowed ground that holds the remains of warriors who stood to defend those who have no inclination to express the slightest amount of gratitude. Place a marble monument atop it that simply reads: "No Greater Love". We will never forget them or their sacrifice.

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