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More training, reviews needed, Dover panel says

Feb. 21, 2012 - 03:15PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 21, 2012 - 03:15PM  |  
A Marine carry team moves the transfer case of Marine Sgt. Joshua J. Robinson during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base, Del., in August. The military should conduct regular inspections, tighten training standards and increase oversight over mortuary operations, according to the group tasked with assessing operations at Dover Port Mortuary after a scandal involving the mishandled remains of fallen troops.
A Marine carry team moves the transfer case of Marine Sgt. Joshua J. Robinson during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base, Del., in August. The military should conduct regular inspections, tighten training standards and increase oversight over mortuary operations, according to the group tasked with assessing operations at Dover Port Mortuary after a scandal involving the mishandled remains of fallen troops. (Getty Images)
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SAN ANTONIO — The military should conduct regular inspections, tighten training standards and increase oversight over mortuary operations, according to the group tasked with assessing operations at Dover Port Mortuary after a scandal involving the mishandled remains of fallen troops.

The group, led by retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, former commanding general of U.S. Central Command, briefed its findings and recommendations Tuesday to the Defense Health Board, which is a federal advisory committee to the defense secretary.

The final report is to due to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta by Feb. 29.

"What could be more important than in their fallen last measure that we properly take care of our service men and women?" Abizaid said. "Just like we can't make a mistake when we deal with things like nuclear weapons, we can't make mistakes when we deal with our fallen. It's absolutely important that we restore confidence with our troops in the field, the families of those troops in the field, and the American public as a whole."

Among the group's recommendations:

• Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations should be placed on the list of centrally selected Air Force commands, and the selected commander should receive special training to deal with the unique nature of the mission. The Air Force secretary also should give the commander Uniformed Code of Military Justice authority.

• The Air Force should form a new command or designate an appropriate command to directly oversee AFMAO.

• The director of Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, which is responsible for the DNA bank, drug and toxicology testing, and examining wounds to provide lessons learned to commanders in the field, should be a commander, and that person also should have UCMJ authority.

• The Army secretary, as the executive agent, should establish minimum standards for manning, training and tour lengths for troops who serve on each of the services' liaison teams. These teams should then be placed under the tactical control of the AFMAO commander while they're assigned to Dover. Currently, each service has a "very informal" liaison program, and each representative is trained and manned very differently, Abizaid said.

• The military should implement regular inspections and after-action reviews at all levels, from AFMAO up through the chain of command and to the Defense Department level.

The scandal at Dover Port Mortuary, which is on Dover Air Force Base, Del., and is where remains of all fallen troops come through, broke in November.

It was revealed that a string of errors occurred as the remains of fallen troops were processed at the mortuary, and questions centered on whether mortuary officials who mishandled the remains and tried to cover it up were adequately punished, and if top Air Force leaders should have informed family members when they first learned about the incidents more than a year before.

The independent review, led by Abizaid, began in mid-December, and the group took a sweeping look at the military's mortuary operations to include AFMAO and AFMES.

"Dover Port Mortuary was the central point for us, but there was no way for us to assess [it] without looking at all the supporting organizations around it," Abizaid said.

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