WASHINGTON - The Air Force came in for heavy criticism Thursday over its handling of the remains of America's war dead, including complaints that it has not been upfront about the extent of the problem.
The criticism came after the service said it had dumped cremated partial remains of at least 274 troops into a Virginia landfill - far more than previously acknowledged.
"It's not just that they're stonewalling people who ask," Democratic Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey said of queries made by him, as well as families, investigators, about Air Force mortuary practices. "I think they don't want to face up to it."
The revelation on the landfill adds to the gruesome narrative that has unfolded since the Air Force announced last month that an investigation found "gross mismanagement" at its mortuary at Dover, Del., the first stop on American soil for fallen troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. That investigation said that among other problems, small body parts of U.S. troops had been lost on two occasions.
On the separate issue of sending remains to a dump, the Air Force had previously said it didn't know how many troops' remains had been disposed of that way, they implied that it was small, and they said they couldn't provide a number without a massive and lengthy examination of records.
Officials called a late afternoon press conference Thursday to explain themselves after The Washington Post reported in Thursday editions that the number was 976 fragments of remains from 274 troops.
"We regret any additional grief to families that past practices may have caused," Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, told reporters, emphasizing that the practice has ended.
In a practice halted three years ago, the Air Force sent to the landfill cremated body parts recovered from the battlefield after other remains had already been identified and returned to the family.
Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the horrendous explosions caused by insurgent bombs presents a great challenge for the military.
"These kids are being put in body bags with all the parts that can possibly be retrieved, and then a month, two months later, somebody might be patrolling down that same alley way and find a finger" or other remains that could have come from the same bombing, he said. "Consulting the families is the thing to do."
Jones said the Air Force had done that. He said remains were cremated, then incinerated, then handed over to a contractor who took them to the landfill in shipments of medical waste - but that it was only in cases in which the family had previously said it didn't want to be contacted in the event more remains were found. Those families authorized the military to dispose of such parts in an appropriate way.
But Davis said a landfill is not appropriate in any case.
The practice was stopped in 2008 and cremated remains from such troops are now given a burial at sea, the Air Force said.
The investigation of Dover's mortuary from May 2010 to March 2011 confirmed allegations by three Dover whistle-blowers that pieces of body parts from the remains of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan were lost on two occasions - in April 2009 and July 2009. It also said that in January 2010 a protruding arm bone of a dead Marine was sawed off in order to fit his remains into his uniform for viewing.
The Air Force disciplined - but did not fire - three senior supervisors there and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered a review of that decision.
Davis said the Air Force took a long time to investigate, "tried to figure out how to spin the facts so they wouldn't look so bad, then made sure everybody had their talking points."
"We absolutely want the Defense Department and Congress to get actively involved to make sure that those who are responsible for violating regulations and policies are held accountable," the VFW spokesman said.