Fact Check

Were the Remains of U.S. Soldiers Dumped in a Landfill?

A report from 2011 about the cremated partial remains of 274 soldiers being dumped in a landfill popped up again several years later.

Published Jan 15, 2016

The remains of more than 250 soldiers were dumped in a landfill between 2004 and 2008, a fact that was ignored by the mainstream media.
What's True

The partial remains of more than 250 soldiers were cremated and dumped in a landfill between 2004 and 2008.

What's False

The story was not ignored by the mainstream media.

On 13 January 2016, the web site Groopspeak published a report claiming that the military had dumped the remains of more than 250 soldiers in a landfill during the George W. Bush administration. While this claim is largely factual, the article may have left readers with a few misleading impressions:

We’ve known since the start of the two Bush wars that there was a media blackout. Unlike Vietnam before it, the media was not allowed to show the hundreds and thousands of body bags being flown from the Middle East. That blackout could be why it went unnoticed for several years that they were regularly incinerating and throwing the bodies of our troops into a Virginia landfill.

The Washington Post picked up the story in 2011, but odds are that most still aren’t aware that at least 274 troops were treated like last night’s chicken bones. Naturally, the families did not know about the dumping. Instead, they were under the impression that their loved ones would be disposed of in a “respectful and dignified manner.”

First, the Dover Air Force Base mortuary never threw entire bodies into a landfill. According to a Air Force officials, the procedure was limited to fragments or portions of body parts that were unable to be identified."

Second, while Groopspeak acknowledged that there is "no evidence that Bush was aware of the practice," the article insinuated that the former president was to blame, since his "media blackout" prevented authorities from discovering the practice. CBS notes, however, that the media was first banned from covering the return of fallen soldiers to Dover in 1991 under his father President George H.W. Bush:

A separate federal investigation of the mortuary last month, prompted by whistleblower complaints, uncovered "gross mismanagement" and documented how body parts recovered from bomb blasts stacked up in the morgue's coolers for months or years before they were identified and disposed of.

The problems also transpired at a time when the mortuary was shielded from public scrutiny. News coverage of the return of fallen troops to Dover was banned by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 before the first Persian Gulf War. The ban remained until April 2009, when the Obama administration lifted it.

Lastly, Groopspeak claimed that this story "hardly made a blip" in the mainstream media. This simply was not true. The Groopspeak article was a summarized version of a report that was filed by the Washington Post in 2011. Shortly after Post published their article under the headline "Air Force dumped ashes of more troops’ remains in Va. landfill than acknowledged," reports were subsequently filed by Fox News, the CBS News, Daily Mail, the New York Daily News, CNN, the BBC, and USA Today:

The Dover Air Force Base mortuary for years disposed of portions of troops’ remains by cremating them and dumping the ashes in a Virginia landfill, a practice that officials have since abandoned in favor of burial at sea.

The mortuary in Delaware, the main point of entry for the nation’s war dead and the target of federal investigations of alleged mishandling of remains, engaged in the practice from 2003 to 2008, according to Air Force officials. The manner of disposal was not disclosed to relatives of fallen service members.

Air Force officials acknowledged the practice Wednesday in response to inquiries from The Washington Post. They said the procedure was limited to fragments or portions of body parts that were unable to be identified at first or were later recovered from the battlefield, and which family members had said could be disposed of by the military.

Lt. Gen. Darrell G. Jones, the Air Force’s deputy chief for personnel, said the body parts were cremated, then incinerated, and then taken to a landfill by a military contractor. He likened the procedure to the disposal of medical waste.

The Dover Air Force Base mortuary stopped dumping the cremated partial remains of soldiers in a landfill in May 2008. Now, partial remains are cremated and then buried at sea:

The Air Force said mortuary leaders decided to end the practice in May 2008 because “there was a better way to do it,” Jones said. The military now cremates unclaimed and unidentified body parts and buries the ashes at sea.

Jones said the Air Force did not need to inform relatives of troops whose remains ended up in the landfill because they had signed forms stipulating that they did not wish to be notified if additional remains were identified. The forms authorized the military to make “appropriate disposition” of those subsequent remains.

Asked if the landfill was a dignified final resting place, Jones said: “The way we’re doing it today is much better.”

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.

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