WASHINGTON - The U.S. military will no longer cremate troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan at a Dover facility that also cremates pets, the Pentagon announced Friday evening at a hastily scheduled news conference.
Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, said there was "no evidence whatsoever that any human remains were mistreated" or that any troops were cremated at the facility designated for pets.
Instead, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the decision Friday after a soldier who works at the Pentagon informed the department that a crematory contracted by the department also incinerated animals.
Morrell called the practice "insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen."
Soldiers killed in action abroad are flown back to Dover Air Force base. However the base mortuary does not have its own crematorium, so the military contracts with two funeral homes for the cremations.
One of the facilities, Torbert Funeral Home, is about two miles from the base and operates its crematories out of two buildings, one for humans and the other for pets, said Bill Torbert, the funeral home owner. Outside the pet crematory is a sign that identifies the building, he said.
On Friday, a soldier who works at the Pentagon went to Torbert's to accompany the body of a friend killed in combat. There he saw the sign outside the crematory that said pets were incinerated at the facility, the Pentagon's Morrell said. Upset by what he saw, the soldier informed the department, prompting the secretary to end the practice, Morrell said.
The military would not release the name or rank of the soldier.
But Torbert said it would be impossible for anyone to mistakenly cremate a human in the pet facility because the crematory for animals is too small.
"We just hope we served the best we can," Torbert said. "We don't think we did anything in an unethical manner."
Still, the Pentagon promised a full investigation.
Troops killed in combat are supposed to be escorted from the battlefield to internment. But Torbert said that when a body arrives at his facility, a military official would leave it there alone overnight for the six-hour cremation process and then retrieve the remains the next day.
Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, the Air Force staff director, and Lt. Gen. David Huntoon, the Army staff director, will visit Dover, the Pentagon said.
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers