They gave their lives, and they deserved better

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I want to know how this can happen in our country. More than that, I want to know who is responsible, and I want him or her put behind bars.

According to an Associated Press story on Dec. 7 (how disgustingly ironic — on the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor), the cremated remains of 274 soldiers were unceremoniously dumped at the King George County Landfill in Virginia. The report was based on database information from the Dover Air Base mortuary, where the remains of most war dead return.

Can the story get any more appalling? Oh yes it can.

It further reports that “the families of the dead authorized the military to dispose of the remains respectfully and with dignity. They were unaware of the landfill dumping, and Air Force officials told the (Washington) Post they have no plans now to alert the families.” Apparently there’s a disconnect on what some people regard as “respectfully and with dignity.” If you ask me, a dead serviceman should get a little more respect and dignity than coffee grounds and banana peels. And … no plans to inform the families that the remains of their loved ones who died serving our country were treated with no more respect than used kitty litter?

What. The. Hell.

The story notes that the Dover Air Base mortuary has handled the remains of 6,300 “troops” since 2001. One has to wonder if the number tossed into the garbage really stops at 274. And here we thought those somber photos of soldiers’ cemeteries with their matching white crosses were the final resting spots of those whose remains where handled by the U.S. government. I guess those are only for convenient photo opps.

Another point of interest in this story: These remains were all collected since 2001. And they’re war dead, not World War II veterans who’ve passed on from old age. This means that most of these soldiers fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Talk about adding insult to injury, particularly for those who died in Iraq. Not only did they fight in an unprovoked war that had nothing to do with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and give their lives for this sham, their bodies are tossed out like trash.

And, consider this travesty in context. According to a story on the Washington Post website, the remains of these particular 274 soldiers were dumped between 2004-2008. Who was in charge then? Oh yes. The same folks who got us into those wars and then barred the media from photographing or filming the stacks of coffins coming back. A security risk, they said. Propaganda at its finest, if you ask me. Bush & Co. didn’t want citizens thinking about the ramifications of war. They wanted us to keep slapping “I support the troops” yellow ribbon decals on our SUVs and obsessing over which politicians are wearing their American flag lapel pins and which aren’t.

“Don’t pay any attention to that man behind the curtain, Dorothy!”

And we didn’t. Shame on us.

If our soldiers are brave enough to risk death to serve our country, we should be brave enough to face their remains when they’re shipped home. And we most certainly should have enough integrity to treat those remains with the utmost respect. And if we don’t know how, ask a veteran. If you’ve ever attended a military funeral or veteran’s funeral, or a Memorial Day ceremony at a cemetery where veterans’ graves are adorned with tiny American flags fluttering in the breeze, you know that veterans and those who care about them know how to treat their dead.

I was deeply touched by the loyalty shown by local veterans to my father, a World War II veteran who fought at Normandy. My father passed away decades after his service and after nearly 30 years of complete disability, and didn’t personally know any of the Veterans of Foreign Wars members here in Winters. But when a member of that group discovered that my father was a veteran, he approached me and said the local veterans group would conduct a military service for him.

I was provided an American flag to drape his coffin at the church before proceeding to the cemetery. The veterans were waiting for him at graveside in uniform — some of them upwards of 80 years old and too frail to even fire the rifles efficiently. But those gnarled hands held up those rifles nonetheless and gave my father a rifle salute, and then the quartermaster solemnly folded the flag into a tight triangle and presented it to me. The lump in my throat was almost as big as the flag.

It meant so much to know that there were people who appreciated what my father had endured and what he sacrificed. Moreover, it was a bittersweet epiphany: veterans share a common bond, no matter when or where they served. They’re connected in a way the rest of us can’t possibly appreciate. And they deserve better treatment than to be tossed into a landfill like so much waste.

Here in Yolo County, homeless and transient people with no friends or family are given a decent memorial service and their ashes interred respectfully. Shouldn’t our fallen soldiers get the same? At the very least, couldn’t the ashes have been buried at sea, with the flag flying and Taps playing, while their fellow soldiers saluted them? They gave their lives. Don’t they at least deserve  this much in return?

— Email Debra at; read more of her work at, and

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