Gari-Lynn Smith was instructed not to open the casket that held the remains of her husband, Sergeant First Class Scott Smith, who was killed in 2006 by a roadside bomb in Iraq, so she ordered an autopsy report to get closure.
Seeing the extent of his injuries, Smith decided to ask the Dover Air Base mortuary about any remains that might have been subsequently found and where they ended up.
After persistent inquiries she received a shocking response from a chief warrant officer in 2007.
“A gentleman at Dover had told me that no one wanted my husband so he was cremated with the rest of the medical waste from the hospital and thrown in the trash,” Smith, 31, of Frenchtown, N.J., said in a phone interview on Friday.
She continued digging deeper and this year went with the information she gathered to The Washington Post. The paper’s investigation revealed that incinerated partial remains of at least 274 American soldiers were thrown into a Virginia landfill.
Those families, all of whom chose not to receive notification of subsequently identified remains of their family members but were told they would be disposed in a respectful way, were not notified.
Lieutenant General Darrell Jones, Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, at a news briefing on Thursday said a contractor incinerated soldiers’ cremated remains and handled any residual matter in lines with “industry practices.”
He added that the leadership of the Air Force was not aware that the contractor was dumping remains into the landfill until 2008. Following the discovery they changed the practice. Unclaimed and unidentified body parts have since been cremated and buried at sea.
Families of 274 soldiers were not notified of what had happened, Lt. Gen. Jones said, because the Air Force was honoring their wishes not to receive notification of subsequently identified remains.
Smith said her husband’s parents did choose not to be re-notified, but that they had a different understanding of what would happen with any additional body parts that would be found.
“We were all told that if there were any additional remains found with him that they would be buried with full military honors,” Smith said. “That turned into a landfill.”
Congressman Rush Holt, who represents Central Jersey, and to whom Smith turned for help this year, said the Pentagon and the Air Force have not been forthcoming in sharing information about the events.
“What is striking about all of this is … their unwillingness to face up to this and their unwillingness to acknowledge that a really horrifying desecration has taken place,” Holt said.