Thursday, November 10, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, the Washington Post reports remains of the fallen were dumped by the Air Force into a landfill, the Air Force Chief of Staff appears today at a Senate committee hearing but only two senators felt the need to bring the issue of the landfill with remains of the fallen up, arrests continue in Iraq, and more.
Today Jon Swaine (Telegraph of London) reports, "US Air Force officials admitted that from 2003 to 2008, body parts sent from war zones to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware were burned before being handed to a private contractor for disposal in Virginia. Family members of the dead troops were not aware of the practice, which emerged amid anger over earlier disclosures that remains were also lost and mishandled by mortuary officials at the base." Craig Whitlock and Greg Jaffe (Washington Post) broke the story: "Air Force officials acknowledged the practice Wednesday in response to inquiries from The Washington Post. [. . .] Asked if it was appropriate or dignified to incinerate troops' body parts and dispose of them in a landfill, [Lt Gen Darrell G.] Jones declined to answer directly." Julian E. Barnes (Wall Street Journal) adds, "The revelation that a landfill was used for the remains came a day after the Air Force released the results of an extensive investigation into complaints that body parts were lost in 2009 in at least two cases at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, which handles the bodies of all service members killed in action oversees. The use of a landfill for some of the partial remains was not connected to the cases of missing body parts."
The issue was raised today in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing into whether or not the Chief of the National Guard should be a Joint-Chief of Staff. Appearing before the Committee was the Defense Dept's General Counsel Jeh Johnson, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey, Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm James Winnefeld Jr., the Army Chief of Staff Gen Ray Odierno, Chief of Naval Operations Adm Jonathan W. Greenert, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen Jame Amos, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen Norton Schwartz and the National Guard Bureau Chief Gen Craig McKinley. Senator Carl Levin is the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In his opening remarks, Chair Levin noted, "I believe that this hearing is a first -- the first time that we have had every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a single hearing. Each of them has appeared before us individually and in different combinations, but never all together." The plan was to cover the hearing in tomorrow's snapshot since tomorrow is Veterans Day. We're going to stick to that with the exception of the issue of remains of the fallen being dumped into landfills. A number of senators weren't present for this full Committee hearing.
Senator Kelly Ayotte: General Schwartz, on a different topic and I just feel the need to ask -- ask about this. Uhm, I'm deeply troubled by the reports about what happened at the mortuary at the Dover Air Force Base. And I'm sure you would agree with me this is outrageous that remains of our soldiers would be put in a landfill and not treated with the appropriate dignity and honor which they deserve. Can you tell me, uh, where we are with this? And how we're going to ensure that this never happens again? And, most importantly, that those who have participated in this outrage are going to be held accountable?
Gen Norton Schwartz: Senator Ayotte, first of all, let me clarify the allegation about putting remains in a landfill. These were portions, prior to 2008, which were sent away from the Dover mortuary to a funeral home for cremation -- which is an authorized method of dealing with remains, particularly those that are separated from the larger portions of remains returned to the family. After that, the results of the cremation came back to the mortuary were sent to a medical support company for incineration. So you had cremation, then incineration and it was at that point that this medical support organizations placed the residuals from that effort to a landfill. In 19 -- In 2008, the Air Force came to the conclusion that that was not the best way to deal with those remains and so it is now done in a traditional fashion of burial at sea. It has been that way since 2008. It will continue to be that way in the future and let me just conclude by saying the Secretary of the Air Force, Mike Donley [Secretary of the US Air Force] and I take personal responsibility for this. Our obligation is to treat our fallen with reverence and dignity and respect and to provide the best possible support and care for their families. That is our mission. The people who did not fulfill our expectations were disciplined and there's no doubt what our expectations are today.
Senator Kelly Ayotte: Well I -- General Schwartz, I appreciate your updating on that and, uh, when I think about the fact that we have Veterans Day tomorrow, this is so important, obviously, that we treat the remains of our fallen with dignity and respect and I know that you share that concern as well. And please know that members of this Committee will be there to support you in any way to make sure that the families know that we certainly won't allow this to happen again.
Let's examine Schwartz' statement.
Senator Ayotte, first of all, let me clarify the allegation about putting remains in a landfill. These were portions, prior to 2008, which were sent away from the Dover mortuary to a funeral home for cremation -- which is an authorized method of dealing with remains, particularly those that are separated from the larger portions of remains returned to the family. After that, the results of the cremation came back to the mortuary were sent to a medical support company for incineration. So you had cremation, then incineration and it was at that point that this medical support organizations placed the residuals from that effort to a landfill.
So remains were dumped in a landfill. You didn't clarify a damn thing, you did try to pretty up what happened and make it seem formal and dignified. Dumping ashes of the fallen into a landfill will never pass for "formal," "dignified" or "proper" unless that is in fact what the service member specifies for their remains in writing.
In 19 -- In 2008, the Air Force came to the conclusion that that was not the best way to deal with those remains and so it is now done in a traditional fashion of burial at sea. It has been that way since 2008.
What's the deal with 2008? In the next section, he'll note himself and Michael Donley and 2008 again. What's the deal?
It will continue to be that way in the future and let me just conclude by saying the Secretary of the Air Force, Mike Donley and I take personal responsibility for this. Our obligation is to treat our fallen with reverence and dignity and respect and to provide the best possible support and care for their families. That is our mission. The people who did not fulfill our expectations were disciplined and there's no doubt what our expectations are today.
No, it doesn't. He may have come on board after the policy was changed but he was in charge when whistleblowers who stepped forward on the loss and damage to remains took place. Tuesday David Martin (CBS Evening News -- link has text and video) reported that three whistle blowers (Mary Ellen Spera, Bill Zwicharowski and James Parsons) had been subject to retaliation for coming forwarded with Zwicharowski being put on administrative leave and James Parsons being fired. Martin notes that they have their jobs today because "a federal office created to protect whistle blowers stepped in." That was under Schwartz watch. He takes responsibility?
Tom Bowman (NPR's Morning Edition -- link has text and audio) reported yesterday on Schwartz Tuesday remarks to the press including that the families who were given fallen remains -- partial remains -- due to body parts being 'misplaced,' would have been notified but that, due to the issue of the whistleblowers, they were unable to tell families per the Office of Special Counsel. From Bowman's report:
CAROLYN LERNER: That's patently false.
BOWMAN: Carolyn Lerner is the special counsel. She says her office urged Air Force lawyers back in March to talk with the families, and they did so again recently.
LERNER: We asked them again, why hadn't you notified them? Their response was that these families, some of them had blogs; they couldn't be trusted - that they might go to the media.
BOWMAN: The special counsel's report, which is now with the White House and Capitol Hill, says the Air Force is still unwilling to acknowledge culpability.
You didn't notify the families? And you lied about why you didn't? Or, to be kind, you didn't actually know why you didn't? And you're claiming you take responsibility? Seems like you need to be out the door right now to demonstrate that there is accountability. I'm thinking back on US House Rep Phil Roe who is a doctor and a hearing about the Miami VA Medical Center (the October 12th House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing covered in the October 20th snapshot) and it's failure to contact service members potentially exposed to diseases while receiving care due to the medical center's lack of proper care of medical instruments. Dr. Roe was appalled to find out that calls weren't made. He talked about how he made mistakes in his practice and when he did he picked up the phone himself as the director of the Miami VA Medical Center should have done. Roe has spoken of this in other hearings as well. If Schwartz had appeared before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, it would be very likely that, based on past Committee record,
US House Rep Phil Roe would have raised that issue and pursued it.
Today one senator did bother to raise it. In doing so, she became on the second senator in the hearing to note the disrespect for the remains of the fallen. Yes, both times it was women who had to do the heavy lifting in the hearing.
Senator Claire McCaskill: I want to specifically, for a minute, General Schwartz, go to the situation at Dover and I don't want to dwell on how hard this has to be for you and the leadership at the Air Force. No one needs to convince me that you want to get this right at Dover. I'll tell you what I do want to bring to your attention and I've did so with a letter today and that is with the finding of the Office of Special Counsel. And so people understand what the Office of Special Counsel is. It's an investigatory and prosecution oriented agency whose primary responsibility under our law is to be independent of all of the agencies and protect whistle blowers. And what I am concerned about is their investigation into what the Air Force did in response to the whistle blowers. And specifically the fact that the IG of the Air Force, they failed to admit wrong doing in their report. And while I understand people have been moved around as a result of the problems that have occured because of mishandling of the sacred remains of the fallen, I'm not sure that they have been held as accountable as what we saw happen at Arlington in connection with that heart breaking incompetence. And what I want to make sure is that there is an independent investigation as to whether or not the IG shaded it a little bit [Chair Carl Levin began nodding his head in vigrous agreement with what McCaskill was saying] because everyone was feeling a little bit protective of the institution for all the right reasons. The vast majority of the people who serve at Dover and who do this work, I'm sure, do it with a heavy heart but with a passion for getting it right. But when we have a circumstance like this arise, I want to make sure the Inspector Generals are not so busy looking after the institution that they fail to point out wrong doing -- which was not ever acknowledged -- and that there is accountability for the people involved. And so, I want you to address the Special Counsel's report as it relates to the Air Force investigation.
Gen Norton Schwartz: Senator McCaskill, there was -- There were -- Clearly were unacceptable mistakes made. Whether they constitute wrong doing is another matter entirely. And when you look at a situation like this, you look at the facts of a case, as an attorney might say. You look at the context in which the event or the mistakes occurred. And you also consider the demands that are -- are placed on individuals and-and organizations. With respect to accountability, we also had an obligation to ensure that the statutory requirements for Due Process were followed. We did that precisely. I can only speak for the case of the uniformed officer. But the uniformed officer received a letter of reprimand. We established an unfavorable information file. We removed him from the command list and his anticipated job as a group commander at Shaw Air Force Base was red-lined. This is not a trivial sanction.
Senator Claire McCaskill: Well I - I understand that's not a trivial sanction but I-I-I'm worried that there was a conclusion that there was not an obligation to notify the families in these instances and obviously this deals with more than uniform personnel and obviously the Secretary of the Air Force is also copied on the letter that I sent today calling for this independent investigation. What happened at Arlington, nobody was intentionally mismarking graves. They were mistakes too. And I just want to make sure that we have really clear eyes while we have full hearts about the right aggressive need for investigations by Inspector Generals in circumstances like this. And thank you very much and thank all of you for being here today.
McCaskill's call for an independent investigation has been picked up by the head of the Department and Charles Hoskinson (POLITICO) explains US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated, "None of us will be satisfied until we have proven to the families of our fallen heroes that we have taken every step necessary to protect the honor and dignity [of the fallens' remains]. This department has to be fully accountable in what we intend to deliver on this matter."
Disclosure: I know and like Leon Panetta. How he handles this will reflect on his tenure as Secretary of Defense and should. And whether or not the sexual assault rate within the ranks drops is also a part of how his tenure should be graded. But Leon's only been in this position since the summer. Is anyone going to go back and 'regrade' Robert Gates who was Defense Secretary during this? No. Of course not, they didn't grade him the first time, they just praised him and -- judging by the off-the-record photo-op we covered here in real time -- they praised him for all the interviews and access he gave them. The military sexual assualt rate did not decline despite his telling Congress over and over that he was taking the issue seriously and addressing it. The military suicide rate did not show a significant drop. Somehow on his Never Ending Farewell Tour, Gates managed to pick up non-stop press about what a 'great' job he'd done with no one ever stopping to actually grade him on what his job was. I like Leon, but when he's done serving as the Defense Secretary, the press doesn't need to gush. They need to grade. If he's done a great job, praise him. That's fine. But if he hasn't accomplished anything on the suicide rate or the sexual assault rate, then he hasn't done his job. Gates granting the press access didn't stop one military suicide or one military sexual assault.
Let's stay with the issue of military suicide because Diane Rehm explored it and veteran suicide on the first hour of The Diane Rehm Show (NPR -- link has audio and transcript options -- transcript is provided by the program for free, accessible to all who can surf the web and not just those who can benefit from streaming audio). Her guests were Give An Hour's Barbara van Dahlen, RAND's Rajeev Ramchand, VA's Jan Kemp and DC's Dept of Mental Health's Elspeth Cameron Ritchie. Excerpt.
Diane Rehm: Elspeth Ritchie, talk about the risk factors in the military and for veterans. Are they different from the risk factors in the general population?
Elspeth Ritchie: Yes, absolutely. As you know, Diane, I retired from the Army last year and -- after spending 28 years in the Army and looked very closely at risk factors for especially Army soldiers. And we published a paper recently on the prevalence and risk factors associated with Army suicides. And, basically, Army suicides are very different from the suicides in the civilian population. In the civilian population, it is usually people with psychiatric disease who are prone to kill themselves. In the Army, the risk factors are pretty simple: the breakup of a relationship, and they are also getting in trouble at work and having a legal problem. And in the Army, if you have a legal problem, you have an occupational problem. And what we've seen over time is that these precipitants -- often very humiliating events are what precipitate a suicide. The other thing that's very important to talk about, and people don't in general, is that about 70 percent of Army suicides are committed by gun, by either the personal weapon back here or the service weapon in theater. And I believe that we don't do nearly enough discussion about how dangerous it is to have the -- what I call the gun in the nightstand, the easily available gun there at a time when you might be having a fight with your wife or just found out that you're going to get in trouble.
Diane Rehm: Now, as I understand it, a third of all suicides in the military are among those who have yet to deploy. What are the factors at work there?
Elspeth Ritchie: What I believe is the most important factor there is not the individual deployment history, but the unit deployment history. So our bases with the highest, what we call up tempo, operations tempo are also those with essentially the highest suicide rate. So where we've had a high suicide rate for a number of years: Fort Carson, Fort Stewart, Fort -- not Fort Bragg so much anymore, Fort Campbell, Fort Riley. Those are all bases, and others, where the troops are constantly coming and going. And what the leaders told me, when we went down to investigate suicides, is they don't know their troops anymore 'cause they're just so busy. They get back from theater, and, shortly after that, they're going to different deployments or different schools or different units. And so the new kid who comes in, that in the old days were being integrated with picnics and barbeques and unit runs, now isn't integrated in the same way 'cause it's just going so quickly.
The Veterans Crisis Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. That is the same number that active duty service members will be referred to. And we'll also note one of Diane's callers from today's program, Deb:
Yes, Diane. I'm calling because I feel like the suicide problem in the military extends beyond the soldiers, to the families of the soldiers, specifically in our family. My husband's son was killed in Afghanistan a number of years ago. And this morning, we just came back from a counseling session through the VA. And I can't tell you how many times I have had concerns for my husband's safety. And I think that the problem right now is there's a ripple in a pond. And when a soldier is either wounded or killed, it not only affects the soldier but all of those in his circle who love him.
Moving to Iraq, Azzaman reports Joe Biden, US Vice president, is expected to discuss a number of issues with Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister and thug of the occupation, when he visits Iraq and notes he met over the weekend in DC with the KRG's Prime Minister Barham Salih. Dar Addustour is an Iraqi paper in Arabic. On their home page they have a poll currently asking whether Iraq should grant US troops immunity after December 31, 2011. The results? 55% (746 votes) have said yes. It's not a scientific poll, it's not in any way limited to Iraqis. But it is surprising that one of Iraq's leading papers would have a poll on that topic and get that sort of result. Yes, a small tiny group -- even one outside Iraq -- could skew the poll. But so could a group on the other side and the percentages really aren't changing this week -- the poll's been up all week and, in fact, went up last week. In other news, Michelle Tan (Army Times) reports:
Soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division have been "remissioned" and will move from Iraq to Kuwait for the remainder of their 12-month tour, the brigade commander announced Wednesday. The announcement from Col. Scott Efflandt was posted on the unit's Facebook page. "Troops and families of the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division are being notified that [the unit] will likely be repositioned within the [Central Command] area of responsibility for the remainder of their 12-month deployment," according to Efflandt's note. "This force will function as a reserve in the region to provide maximum flexibility for response to contingencies. It also demonstrates our lasting commitment to regional stability and security, and the robust security relationships we maintain with our regional partners."
Tan explains that the White House is working to secure a deal to use Kuwait as a staging platform for several thousand US troops. Meanwhile, UPI notes the CIA's not leaving Iraq, "The Central Intelligence Agency, which until recently operated outside the military establishment, is expected to stay on in various guises within the 17,000 U.S. personnel who will remain under State Department jurisdiction." Walter Pincus (Washington Post) addressed yesterday how the US government will be using security contractors in Iraq: "The latest example comes from the Army, which said in a recent notice that it has increased the number of contracted security teams hired to escort convoys of food and fuel coming in from Kuwait." And this use of contractors is happening while the State Dept refuses to present Congress or the SIGIR with any hard numbers or other facts leaving the American tax payer at risk of more tax dollars wasted on corruption and graft. And at a time when the Commission on Wartime Contracting -- whose salaries were paid for by US tax payers -- had declared it's not sharing its work. From the October 4th snapshot:
Over the weekend, Nathan Hodge (Wall St. Journal) reported on the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, "The internal records of a congressionally mandated panel that reported staggering estimates of wasteful U.S. wartime spending will remain sealed to the public until 2031, officials confirmed, as the panel closed its doors on Friday." They've finished their study and they've closed their books. And, if you were at the hearing today, you learned just how wrong that is as Co-Chair Shays waived around the Commission's published findings and declared, "Our problem with Mr. Tieffer was that this book would have been three times as thick if we'd let him put in everything he wanted to put in so we limited him to 40 cases. But it could have been many more." Great, so US tax payer money went down the drain again. The Commission unearthed tons of things but decided just to publish 40 of them. Because they didn't want their book to be too thick. Right. We covered the Commission's public hearings. It was always a waste of time which describe the Commission itself and those members of Congress that pushed for it. The only value the Commission could have had was in making public its records now while the wars continue in the hopes that contract waste and abuse could be caught and some money saved. However, that's not going to happen with the Commisson's records being sealed and the published report only focusing on a small number of cases of fraud and abuse. As noted before, the Commission's purpose was never to find fraud and abuse. The purpose was to distract outraged Americans from what was being done with their money. The Commission had no powers. No charges have been filed over fraud. The Commission has wrapped up their business.
Two U.S. senators slammed a request by the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan to seal its records for 20 years and called on higher officials to publicly release them, according to a statement released Thursday. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., co-signed a Nov. 7 letter to Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero calling on him to overrule the commission's request, which would effectively prevent the public from learning the details of an investigation into a massive misuse of taxpayer dollars.
AP adds, "Webb and McCaskill sponsored the legislation that created the commission." And it should be noted that the intent was not for the commission to be a private study group fiercely guarding their findings. The intent was for it to be open and for it to provide resources allowing for lessons to be learned. Writing for Jordan's As-Sabeel, the Washington Institute's Michael Knights estimates the US State Dept will be using approximately 14,000 contractors and that as many as 5,000 of those will be armed security contractors. So this will be a large number and, the weaponization of diplomacy being a new thing, the State Dept has no training in this area. Knights also notes that the Defense Dept will provide 157 personnel (in addition to the 763 contractors) to the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq and that in Defense Dept personnel (military or civilian) would be covered with immunity via the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations -- and that this is agreed to by Nouri al-Maliki who was pushing for this understanding when there was talk of 200 to 300 US forces staying in Iraq beyond 2011. And on why an immunity deal wasn't reachable (so far at least), Omar (Iraq The Model) offered this argument at the start of last month:
The cause of this deadlock is rooted in the disagreements on power, land and money. All the Iraqi political leaders (except the Sadrists) are willing to vote in favor of immunity, but they will not give this to PM Maliki for free. Specifically, Iraqiya wants the Policies Council and Defense Ministry, while the Kurdistani Alliance wants a friendly oil and gas law [there is coordination on this issue with Iraqiya to reach a mutually accepted draft] and, eventually, some progress on disputed territories. If the Kurds and Iraqiya get these some of these demands, they will support Maliki's request for parliament to give immunity to US troops.
Aswat al-Iraq reports that Dr. Hom al-Khishaly, Iraqi Army Doctor, is being held in Diyala Province as a 'terrorism' suspect. Basaer News notes that Nouri's security forces have arrested over 1,000 Iraqi citizens in the last month. The Association of Muslim Scholars notes that many were arbitrary with the most arrests taking place in Diyala Province (277) and Nineveh having the second highest arrest rate (163).