Transportation of the remains of armed service members who dieoutside the U.S. would become the responsibility of those troops'military commands under legislation pending in Congress that seemsalmost certain to become law.
The initiative was proposed inreaction to the mishandling of remains by the military mortuary at DoverAir Force Base, Del., after the problem was exposed last year. It aimsto have a uniformed service member be accountable from the initialdeath or recovery of the remains through burial or interment, unless afamily requests otherwise. The designated member would be subject todisciplinary action if something goes wrong.
Under the proposal,already approved by the House as part of the 2013 defense authorizationbill and introduced Monday as an amendment to the Senate version of thebill, the Defense Department would be responsible for ensuring someoneis responsible for the care, handling and transportation of remains ofany member of the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps who dies outsidethe U.S.
Regulations to ensure continuous responsibility would have to be issued within 60 days after the bill becomes law.
Oneperson would not necessarily be responsible for the remains throughoutthe process. But if responsibility shifts, there would have to be aformal chain-of-custody handoff.
News reports last year uncovered adecade of problems with the handling of remains at the Port Mortuarythat resulted in some unidentified remains being sent to landfills andmishandling by mortuary workers.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., achief sponsor of the bill, said he believes military members can betrusted to show more respect for remains than civilians at the mortuary,which falls under the Dover-based Air Force Mortuary AffairsOperations.
Coffman, a Marine Corps and Army veteran, notes thatservice members can be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of MilitaryJustice if they fail to carry out an assignment, while prosecutingcivilians is much harder.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., takes issue with Coffman's perspective, said his press secretary, Katie Wilson.
"SenatorCarper has met with the AFMAO leaders and is satisfied that correctivemeasures are in place for all members of that operation," Wilson said."The problems at the AFMAO cannot be attributed to the fact that thoseinvolved were civilians or military, as the proposed legislationsuggests. After all, it was civilian staff who stepped forward to pointout the problems with AFMAO."
Rep. John Carney, D-Del., agreed,saying that the Port Mortuary has taken "strong corrective actions" inresponse to the issues "raised by civilian whistleblowers and thecongressional delegation."
However, Carney doesn't appear opposed to additional scrutiny for the mortuary.
"Ibelieve that providing even more care and attention will only enhancethe quality with which we carry out this solemn responsibility," hesaid.
Carper is still reviewing the proposal, Wilson said.
Port Mortuary spokeswoman Capt. Henrietta Johnson declined to comment.
"It's pending legislation," she said.