It took Gari-Lynn Smith more than four years to learn what happened to the final remains of her husband, an US Army sergeant killed in Iraq.
However, the New Jersey widow never thought that knowing the truth would be worse than not knowing, or that her search would lead to the bottom of a landfill.
“I was told no one wanted my husband, so he was cremated with the medical waste and thrown in the trash,” Smith said in an interview last week from her home.
Her quest to find the truth about what happened to her husband’s remains led to an even more disturbing revelation last week as the US Air Force acknowledged it had dumped cremated partial remains of at least 274 troops into a Virginia dump — far more than previously acknowledged.
Her story, first told by the Washington Post, along with information from multiple whistleblowers about other mistreatment of fallen soldiers’ bodies became the catalyst for an investigation that found “gross mismanagement” at the Air Force’s mortuary in Dover, Delaware — the first stop on US soil for fallen troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is where the body of Sergeant 1st Class Scott Smith, a bomb-disposal technician, was flown in July 2006.
Smith was killed after he stepped on a pressure plate above a roadside bomb as he worked to clear the area.
Several limbs and much of his torso were lost in the explosion, his wife said.
Initially led to believe her husband’s entire body was returned, Gari-Lynn became suspicious after being told she shouldn’t ask to see the body before the closed-casket funeral.
Later, she ordered copies of the autopsy and learned there were additional remains located, leading to more questions.
This spring, after years of pestering Air Force officials, she received a letter from the Dover mortuary telling her some of her husband’s body was incinerated and sent to a landfill.
It closed: “I hope that this brings you some comfort in your time of loss.”
The Air Force later confirmed that other soldiers’ remains were incinerated and then handed over to a contractor who took them to the landfill in shipments of medical waste.
The Air Force said that remains were shipped to the landfill only in cases in which the family had previously signed a form saying it didn’t want to be contacted in the event more remains were found.
Scott Smith’s parents had signed the form in the days after his death.
The forms authorized the US Department of Defense to “make appropriate disposition” of any partial remains that might be discovered.
Gari-Lynn said she understood why his parents signed the form, but that it never specified that the remains would be thrown away.
“I just don’t understand how they get ‘appropriate’ and ‘landfill’ in the same sentence,” Gari-Lynn said.
“I obviously was completely outraged, upset and hysterical,” she added.
Smith contacted Democratic Representative Rush Holt, and together they pressed for more information.
The practice, which Holt believes goes back to 1996, was stopped in 2008, and cremated remains from such troops are now given a burial at sea, the Air Force said.
The Air Force disciplined — but did not fire — three senior supervisors at Dover, and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has ordered a review of that decision.
“Nobody has ever apologized,” Smith said.