(Mike Morones/Air Force Times)
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KING GEORGE, Va. Gari-Lynn Smith wasn't sure she wanted to see this place. Or to participate in a ceremony to honor her husband six years after his death in a bomb blast in Iraq.
There had already been a funeral for Army Sgt. 1 Class Scott Smith. She wanted to keep those wounds closed.
In the end, she decided to make the trip from her Frenchtown, N.J., home to the Virginia landfill where the Air Force discarded portions of her husband's cremated remains and those of at least 274 other service members between 2004 and 2008.
Smith was the reason there would be a ceremony in the first place. It was only after years of phone calls, letters, emails and meetings that she learned what had become of the partial remains that were not buried with her husband. His parents, like dozens of other families of the fallen, had authorized the Air Force to dispose of portions of remains found after his initial recovery. Smith for years had been told only that the remains had been "released to the mortuary." She thought perhaps they'd been interred at Arlington with others.
But in April 2011, on what would have been her husband's 39th birthday, the mortuary at last responded that "the remains were carefully prepared for cremation, cremated, and then turned over to a medical disposal company that further incinerated the cremated remains," according to a letter emailed as an attachment to Smith. "The material was, at that time, taken to a landfill. The landfill used then is in King George County VA."
The longstanding practice dating at least to 1996 had ended in 2008, she learned in another email from the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation.
Smith once took comfort in the belief that her husband's remains had been treated with dignity. Outraged to learn otherwise, she took her story to the media.
The revelation followed a report by the Office of Special Counsel that had outlined multiple cases of lost, mishandled and misplaced remains at the nation's only port mortuary. Three officials there were later reprimanded, including the former commander who was cited for "gross mismanagement." One resigned. The others were transferred.
"Nobody in King George had any idea this was going on," said Richard Lorey, an Army veteran and long-time resident. "Waste management didn't know it was going on. Everybody was shocked about this."
Lorey, along with others in the community, decided to erect a memorial at the landfill to honor fallen service members. In a speech at the dedication Sept. 23, Lorey said he'd been asked over and over why he was doing this.
"We do it to honor the fallen," he said. "What happened here was a tragedy. To do nothing would further the tragedy."
Smith sat nearby, wiping at tears as he spoke in the afternoon sunshine. Afterward, she and Lorey together unveiled the bronze plaque placed at the landscaped entrance of the landfill.
"For honor, respect and in memory of those American service members known but to God, who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom," it reads. "We are ever grateful. The citizens of King George County and a grateful nation."
A day earlier, Smith visited the place in the landfill where her husband's remains are thought to be.
She'd expected "active garbage, a smell, rotten landfill," she said. But "the spot … is now a big hill covered in grass."
Smith said she can still picture what's underneath. And, "I'd rather be sitting at Arlington." But as she said her goodbyes, the breeze picked up. Birds circled overhead.
"I found a little bit of peace."