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Military mortuary staffers cremated the partial remains of at least 274 U.S. troops and dumped them in a landfill. Relatives of the fallen soldiers were reportedly not informed.
The secret practice ended three years ago, reports The Washington Post, which first uncovered the landfill story last month.
The Post initially reported just one incident in which a soldier's ashes were sent from Dover Air Base in Maryland to a landfill in Virginia. The follow-up reveals the landfill dumping occurred on a much wider scale from 2004 to 2008.
The report follows a federal investigation which found "gross mismanagement" at the Dover mortuary, where remains of service members killed in action are received from overseas.
Body parts recovered from bomb blasts were left untouched and unidentified for years, the government found. In another incident, a fallen Marine's arm was sawed off in order to fit in a casket; the Marine's relatives were neither notified nor asked for their consent.
The Dover mortuary's commander was reprimanded and is no longer at the helm. Other mortuary workers were downgraded and reassigned. No one has been prosecuted, but Congress is investigating.
Relatives of the fallen service members had authorized the military to dispose of the remains respectfully and with dignity, the Associated Press reports.
That's why the Dover mortuary's mishandling could be grounds for a lawsuit, one observer noted on a blog called Soldier Finance.
One possible claim could be intentional infliction of emotional distress, which requires outrageous conduct that intentionally or recklessly causes a severe emotional reaction. Here, the mishandling of fallen service members' remains may have caused survivors to experience severe emotional trauma.
But a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Feres v. United States, bars military members from suing the government for injuries caused by military negligence. The precedent is commonly referred to as the "Feres doctrine."
One military mother told the Navy Times that time has healed her wounds regarding the mishandling of her son's remains, and she isn't mad at the military. "I think this speaks to grief because if they had told me this a few days after Tom died, I would have really been on their case," she said.