NJ widow exposes mishandling of troop remains
FRENCHTOWN, N.J. (AP) — It took Gari-Lynn Smith more than four years to learn what happened to the final remains of her husband, an Army sergeant killed in Iraq.
The New Jersey widow never thought that knowing would be worse than not, or that her search would lead to the bottom of a landfill.
"I was told no one wanted my husband, so he was cremated with the medical waste and thrown in the trash," Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press this week from her home.
Her quest to find the truth of what happened to her husband's remains led to an even more disturbing revelation this week as the Air Force acknowledged it had dumped cremated partial remains of at least 274 troops into a Virginia dump — far more than previously acknowledged.
Her story, first told by The Washington Post, along with information from multiple whistleblowers about other mistreatment of fallen soldiers' bodies became the catalyst for an investigation that found "gross mismanagement" at the Air Force's mortuary in Dover, Del. — the first stop on American soil for fallen troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's where the body of Sgt. 1st Class Scott R. Smith, a bomb-disposal technician, was flown in July 2006. Smith was killed after he stepped on a pressure plate above a roadside bomb as he worked to clear the area. Several limbs and much of his torso were lost in the explosion, his wife said.
Initially led to believe her husband's entire body was returned, Gari-Lynn became suspicious after being told she shouldn't ask to see the body before the closed-casket funeral. Later, she ordered copies of the autopsy and learned there were additional remains located, leading to more questions.
This spring, after years of pestering Air Force officials, she received a letter from the Dover mortuary telling her some of her husband's body was incinerated and sent to a landfill. It closed: "I hope that this brings you some comfort in your time of loss."
The Air Force later confirmed that other soldiers' remains were incinerated then handed over to a contractor who took them to the landfill in shipments of medical waste.
The Air Force said remains were shipped to the landfill only in cases in which the family had previously signed a form saying it didn't want to be contacted in the event more remains were found. Scott Smith's parents had signed the form in the days after his death. The forms allowed the Defense Department to "make appropriate disposition" of partial remains that may be discovered.
Gari-Lynn said she understood why his parents signed the form, but that it never specified that the remains would be thrown away.
"I just don't understand how they get 'appropriate' and 'landfill' in the same sentence," Gari-Lynn said. "I obviously was completely outraged, upset and hysterical."
Smith contacted Democratic Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, and together they pressed for more information.
The practice, which Holt believes goes back to 1996, was stopped in 2008, and cremated remains from such troops are now given a burial at sea, the Air Force said.
The Air Force disciplined — but did not fire — three senior supervisors at Dover, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered a review of that decision.
"Nobody has ever apologized," Smith said. "I would like for them to sit across the table and look me in the eye and say that it was an appropriate disposition for my husband to be thrown in a garbage dump, mixed in with the rest of household garbage like last week's leftover meatloaf."
Holt said he was shocked at the military's response.
"They tried to minimize this and present it as a procedural error," Holt said. "I don't think they understand the degree of dishonesty, disrespect and insensitivity that's involved here."
Holt said the change of how remains are handled should be credited to the "persistence of Gari-Lynn."
Gary-Lynn said she owed it to the legacy of her husband — a man who helped stranded motorists in snowstorms and who wore a big, mischievous smile that "let us know that he knew something that the rest of us just didn't know or didn't get."
He was a kind man, she said, and a man who took on a job assignment that others would run away from because he understood the honor and importance in saving lives and honoring those lost.
"Scott would be completely disgusted," she said of the way the remains were handled. "If he were here, I believe he would be helping me in this fight."