This week The Washington Post published a horrifying series of stories involving the mishandling of American service members remains at the mortuary at Dover Air Force base. The paper’s reporting was based on a federal investigation that found “gross mismanagement” at the mortuary — the primary entry point for all our war dead since the first Persian Gulf War. This “mismanagement” included the misplacement of soldiers’ body parts, the inappropriate transport of bodies, dumping soldiers’ cremated body parts in a landfill. In one case, an embalmer was forced by his superior to saw off a dead Marine’s arm, allegedly because the family was insisting he be buried in his uniform. The embalmer called it “immoral” but did it anyway. He later assisted in the investigation into the practices there.
Sadly, though the incidents happened in 2010, the families of the soldiers whose remains were mishandled and lost weren’t told until recently what had happened. It sickens one to think they are reading many of the broader – and unbelievably graphic — details for the first time in the Post this week.
The Air Force said it rectified its policies and practices after an investigation, but it did not fire the commander and the two senior officers in charge of Dover. No one seems convinced the Air Force adequately addressed the situation, and instead spent more energy trying to protect its reputation than to set things straight. The Office of Special Counsel proclaimed the service displayed a pattern of “failure to acknowledge culpability for wrongdoing.”
Sadly, it sounds like we’ve heard this story before. And we have. A now two-year investigation of the mismanagement at the hallowed Arlington National Cemetery has found that some 200 graves have been mishandled or mislabeled, with estimates that some 6,000 graves could be affected by poor record keeping. Bodies have been misplaced — in one case two soldiers buried on top of one another, and damaged urns found on the property with no identification — even the mementos left behind for recent Iraq and Afghanistan War vets unceremoniously power washed away from the markers and dumped like detritus into trash bins. Money was wasted, families were lied to. Disrespect and neglect all around.
And was it so long ago that The Washington Post and Salon broke stories that eventually exposed a major scandal at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center? The outside world was suddenly confronted by the sordid news that our “wounded warriors” were languishing in moldy rooms, neglected by overworked administrators and platoon sergeants, left in the hallways and in common rooms dazed by medications, lost to the world outside.
Sensing a pattern here?
I wrote a column earlier this week in which I assert there is a new veteran in town this Veterans Day: one who is angry, aware and active. We are seeing him — and her — at various Occupy protests, and among the myriad online discussions about the protests. They have many things to say about the current state of things, but above all, these vets are challenging more than ever a system that appears to care only about soldiers when they pledge their pound of flesh and are on the battlefield, or when they can be used as props for shepherding public perception behind the administration’s national security goals. But beyond that — the disabled soldier, the psychologically shattered soldier, the poor, the homeless, the unemployed — God forbid, the dead soldier — well, they just don’t seem to be that useful anymore. If fact, they can be expensive — a real burden. As a result, there seems to be a sad pattern of neatly — and conveniently — shoving them away to the back of the shelf, only to be taken out gratuitously each Veterans Day for the national ritual, and that’s it.
If they are dead, they are are afforded the elaborate ceremony and the flag draped over the coffin. But underneath is just a wooden box and a number, and it would seem plenty of ways for an uncaring bureaucracy to lose, misplace or mishandle them.
This of course, is not new. But it is disappointing that so little has changed since Vietnam. Americans are of course more aware, and I think genuinely sensitive to the needs of our Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, but since these veterans make up such a small percentage of the population (about 2.3 million now men and women have served), they tend to blend in and are easily forgotten, especially in places where there are no bases or installations or strong military communities. But this in no way lets the government off the hook. In fact, the system has let “our warriors” down from start to finish in many ways.
Over the years, we have heard about shady recruiting practices, unusually long, multiple deployments causing unbelievable stress on servicemembers and their families back home. We’ve heard of the military dispensing with their obligation to troops by discharging troubled soldiers suffering from PTSD or even traumatic brain injury for “personality disorders,” which means they did not have to afford them health benefits or disability payments. We have vets sick from apparent lung and nerve damage from various toxic burn pits in the field, but the military still denies that it’s happening. We have men and women struggling for access to mental health care and killing themselves while waiting. We have an army of over-medicated ex-soldiers and Marines who cannot work and if they can, are facing higher unemployment rates than their non-veteran cohorts. Homeless veterans are more likely to die on the street and than the rest of the homeless population.
Right now, there is a backlog of over one million claims for disability benefits at the VA today — including tens of thousands of appeals that will likely take years to be adjudicated. Many of those appeals, sources tell me, are due to VA error in the process and that error rate currently runs at 25 percent of every claim filed.
Kind of makes the yellow ribbon-support-your-troops bumper stickers seem awfully superficial and well, condescending. Because, really, what does it mean? Any real public outrage for the aforementioned scandals was fleeting if not ultimately peripheral to the real news of the day, which was — and still is — that the American president, his administration and the national security establishment, is going to keep the country at war, using as many of its young men and women as cannon fodder, for as long as they damn well please. “Fleeting outrage” doesn’t move policy or break political careers. That is why it is 2011 and there are still more than 100,000 servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, while there is absolutely nothing wrong with parades and wreath layings and shedding tears for the fallen while touring the national monuments, we must acknowledge that there are other ways to show support for our veterans. One of those is not to mock the veterans who are standing up to demand what they were promised, who are among the now one-third of veterans who say the wars were not worth it, that they feel duped. Contrary to what the rightwing blogomob wants to think, these are “real” veterans, who once were “real” soldiers, sailors, Air Force and Marines. They have just decided to take the struggle into their own hands rather than wait for the rest of us to wake up.
One last word on Dover Air Force base. The last two administrations have gone to great lengths to profess that the presence of the media when the caskets come in from overseas risks disrespect to the soldiers and their grieving families. Nothing more proves that’s a poor excuse for trying to manage the message than us finding out that the military cared so little for those soldiers that it had fallen into “a pattern of gross mismanagement” of their corpses after the private ceremonies and calls from families concluded.
It is a metaphor for our wars and our times. It is up to us now, to heed it.