A Marine Corps team transfers the remains of a fallen comrade at Dover Air Force Base, Del.(Photo: Roland Balik, U.S. Air Force)
Transportation of the remains of armed service members who die
outside the U.S. would become the responsibility of those troops'
military commands under legislation pending in Congress that seems
almost certain to become law.
The initiative was proposed in
reaction to the mishandling of remains by the military mortuary at Dover
Air Force Base, Del., after the problem was exposed last year. It aims
to have a uniformed service member be accountable from the initial
death or recovery of the remains through burial or interment, unless a
family requests otherwise. The designated member would be subject to
disciplinary action if something goes wrong.
Under the proposal,
already approved by the House as part of the 2013 defense authorization
bill and introduced Monday as an amendment to the Senate version of the
bill, the Defense Department would be responsible for ensuring someone
is responsible for the care, handling and transportation of remains of
any member of the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps who dies outside
Regulations to ensure continuous responsibility would have to be issued within 60 days after the bill becomes law.
person would not necessarily be responsible for the remains throughout
the process. But if responsibility shifts, there would have to be a
formal chain-of-custody handoff.
News reports last year uncovered a
decade of problems with the handling of remains at the Port Mortuary
that resulted in some unidentified remains being sent to landfills and
mishandling by mortuary workers.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a
chief sponsor of the bill, said he believes military members can be
trusted to show more respect for remains than civilians at the mortuary,
which falls under the Dover-based Air Force Mortuary Affairs
Coffman, a Marine Corps and Army veteran, notes that
service members can be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military
Justice if they fail to carry out an assignment, while prosecuting
civilians is much harder.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., takes issue with Coffman's perspective, said his press secretary, Katie Wilson.
Carper has met with the AFMAO leaders and is satisfied that corrective
measures are in place for all members of that operation," Wilson said.
"The problems at the AFMAO cannot be attributed to the fact that those
involved were civilians or military, as the proposed legislation
suggests. After all, it was civilian staff who stepped forward to point
out the problems with AFMAO."
Rep. John Carney, D-Del., agreed,
saying that the Port Mortuary has taken "strong corrective actions" in
response to the issues "raised by civilian whistleblowers and the
However, Carney doesn't appear opposed to additional scrutiny for the mortuary.
believe that providing even more care and attention will only enhance
the quality with which we carry out this solemn responsibility," he
Carper is still reviewing the proposal, Wilson said.
Port Mortuary spokeswoman Capt. Henrietta Johnson declined to comment.
"It's pending legislation," she said.
Rick Maze, Military Times