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Bittersweet and emotional tribute at KG landfill draws large crowds, national media

King George—On Sunday, what could have been mistaken for a White House Rose Garden event, complete with a podium, notable guests flanked by a speaker system, a band, American flags, 80 white chairs for special guests, a line of news cameras, reporters and photographers and hundreds of standing audience members, was in actuality a memorial.  However, unlike the meticulously executed memorial services Americans have come to expect for fallen Iraq and Afghanistan American service members, this ceremony lacked the support of the United States Department of Defense.  The memorial was held at the King George Landfill where hundreds of 

service members’ remains were dumped after being incinerated by a Department of Defense contractor as “medical waste.”

The memorial service, which was spearheaded by Ruby Brabo, Dahlgren member of the King George Board of Supervisors, who is the wife of an active-duty Army soldier, took place after months of debate among the King George Board of Supervisors.  Brabo faced opposition from some of her fellow board members; specifically Joseph W. Grzeika and Dale W. Sisson, Jr., who, along with some King George County citizens, did not believe placing a memorial at the landfill would be appropriate. 

 However during a Board of Supervisors meeting in the spring, Gari-Lynn Smith, the widow of Army Sergeant First Class Scott R. Smith, and Dr. Richard Lorey, a Navy veteran who worked as a physicist at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren joined forces.  Smith, who discovered the DoD scandal and attempted cover-up wrote a letter that Lorey read to the entire board in which she explained that she and other Gold Star Families—those military families who have lost a loved one in combat—needed the memorial to be close to where the remains were and not at the King George County Courthouse as some had suggested.  At that time, although reluctant, the board members who were opposed to the memorial voted with Brabo to unanimously agree that a memorial should be erected where the remains lay.

Brabo, who had played host to Smith and her family and friends over the three day period that they were here from New Jersey, was joined at the landfill by Board of Supervisors Members Cedell Brooks, Jr. and John P. LoBuglio. Grzeika and Sisson were not in attendance.  Members of the Department of Defense, whom Brabo had asked to come and provide, at the minimum, an honor guard to elevate the ceremony to the level that it deserved, also failed to attend.  

“The Department of Defense missed out on an opportunity to at least acknowledge their mistake and to show support for their fellow military families,” Brabo said as she criticized the Department of the Army Military District of Washington, which is responsible for carrying out all funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.  

In a letter dated Aug. 29, Ron McLendon II, Chief of Community Relations for the Directorate of Public Affairs and Community Relations for the Military District of Washington declined to participate in the event.  Instead, he directed her to “a couple of VFW Posts that may be available to support your request for a wreathbearer (sic) and bugler,” the letter stated.  Brabo said that in follow-up correspondence she was told had she made the request in her capacity as an elected official, the decision may have been different.

“As a board member, I hold myself to the standard of not making any unilateral decisions,” Brabo said.  “This was something I campaigned on before I was elected and as an Army spouse I’m, frankly, offended that I count only when I employ the ‘power’ of an elected office.”  

At 4 o’clock sharp, the roar of motorcycle engines shook the ground as dozens of members of the American Legion Riders Post 89 of King George and Virginia Patriot Guard arrived to build a Wall of Flags on a raised area behind the seated and standing guests and the news media.  

Lorey, who got choked up during his remarks, welcomed the attendees, some of whom were active-duty soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors dressed in their respective formal uniforms, reserved for only the most important of events.  Although there were but a few, Smith said it was nice to see men and women in uniform.  Smith acknowledged the attendance of members of several VFW and American Legion posts and other non-uniformed veterans who were in attendance.

Gari-Lynn Smith uncovered the scandal that rocked the Department of Defense and led to the Pentagon having to admit to the inappropriate disposal of remains of killed service men and women in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan upon their return to American soil at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.  Dover Air Force Base serves as the country’s primary point of return for military members killed overseas.  

Smith’s husband was an explosives ordinance technician whose job it was to dismantle improvised explosive devices—one of which ultimately exploded—killing Sergeant 1st Class Smith on July 17, 2006.

“When I found out that my Scott had been killed,” Smith said, “once I got past the shock and despair, I wanted to know what exactly happened.”  

She said that she knew something was awry when, she says the Department of Defense wouldn’t give her any clear answers.  In countless e-mails Smiths shared with The Journal it’s evident that DoD officials were not being forthright or forthcoming with Smith.

“At one point I was told he had died four hours before he even went on the mission,” she said angrily with a quiver in her voice during a private tour of the quiet, scenic field where Waste Management officials believe her late husband’s remains would likely be.

After years of digging and pushing, the strong-willed 32-year-old Smith received a letter from Trevor T. Dean, Deputy to the Commander of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations in Dover, in May of 2011, Smith said.

The letter begins with several platitudes thanking her for inquiring about “procedures this facility uses to care for the subsequently recovered and identified remains of our fallen military members.”  

The letter goes on for several sentences, at one point misidentifying SFC Scott R. Smith as “SFC Robert A. Smith.”  

“And then there are those words - those words I will never, ever be able to forget,” Gari-Lynn Smith said.

In a matter-of-fact, impersonal tone, the letter, printed on Department of the Air Force letterhead continued:

“The remains were carefully prepared for cremation, cremated, and then turned over to a medical disposal company that further incinerated the cremated remains.  The material was, at that time, taken to a landfill.  The landfill used then is in King George County, VA.” 

The letter was written as carelessly as the undignified way in which at least 270 additional remains of service members had been dumped as trash.  In addition to completely getting the name of her husband wrong, the letter was dated “21 April 2008,” three years before Smith received the letter.

“It just made me sick, but I expect nothing better from them anymore,” she said.

Thomas Cue, the district manager for Waste Management, the company that operates the landfill said that the facility had no idea that human remains, especially those of fallen war veterans, were being dumped there.

“The DOD determined dumping of soldiers’ remains happened between 2003 and 2008 (some references say it started in 2004),” Cue wrote in an e-mail. “The Dover Air Force Base mortuary contractor, Medtrace, picked up remains, transported to an incinerator in Baltimore, before taking them to King George according to the DOD report.  The [King George] landfill is permitted to accept certain types of industrial ash, but does not take in medical waste.”

Cue asserted that Waste Management had no record of a contract with Medtrace and that his company and his employees at the King George landfill were unaware of what the Air Force had done until November 2011, when the Washington Post first reported on the atrocity.  

“Waste Management contacted the Air Force on multiple occasions to try to determine the validity of the claims and [we] still haven’t received a response,” he said.  “We were pulled unknowingly into this unfortunate situation by the Air Force.  We would never take cremated remains of our service men and women and put them in a landfill; they served our country protecting our freedom and deserve a dignified burial.”

Last November, spokeswoman for Waste Management Lisa Kardell said that incinerated remains are not considered medical waste because they have been deemed non-hazardous due to the process the remains undergo to be rendered into ash.  Kardell said that the ashes are classified as “special waste” which the King George landfill is permitted to accept.

Air Force officials have since acknowledged that remains were brought to the landfill in King George. 

 As the memorial program continued, Gari-Lynn Smith cried several times as guest speaker, U.S. Army Captain (Ret.) Leslie Smith spoke about one common thread among all the branches of the armed forces: never leave a comrade behind.  

 “This [memorial] is our chance to make a wrong a right,” she said. 

 Captain Smith, who had her service dog Isaac with her, is legally blind and lost her left leg due to complications from a blood clot and infection that she says she acquired while deployed to Bosnia in 2001.  She said it’s believed she was exposed to a chemical agent or toxin which caused her health to fail in 2002 when she spent much of the year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.

“I really commend the residents of King George,” Capt. Smith said, “I’m very proud to be a resident here.  They’ve stepped forward to make sure that these service members did receive the respect and dignity that they deserved.” 

Pastor Michael Ramming, who had earlier done the invocation, read a letter from New Jersey Congressman Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), in which he spoke of SFC Scott Smith as “one of the heroes we honor here today.”  

Holt’s letter went on to say, “another hero in this story is Scott Smith’s widow, Gari-Lynn, a constituent of mine who fought boldly and ceaselessly against Pentagon leadership to reveal what had happened to her husband’s remains.”  

Ramming continued reading Holt’s letter: “Earlier this year, Gari-Lynn’s request, I proposed and the House passed a bill to create a Federal Mortuary Advisory Commission.  This Commission would include family members of fallen service members, as well as experts in mortuary affairs, and who would be charged with reviewing and monitoring mortuary practices at Dover and elsewhere.  This bill, like the plaque we unveil today, represents a small step toward repairing the damage that these events have done to our nation’s moral fabric.”

Congressman Holt’s letter stated that “through a completely inexplicable—and inexcusable—policy decision by the Department of Defense, portions of [SFC Smith’s] remains, which were recovered after his body was returned home, were sent to this landfill for disposal.  The same indignity was inflicted on hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of other service members and their families.”

At the conclusion of the reading of Holt’s letter, Gari-Lynn Smith took to the podium as the crowd rose from its chairs.  Smith had said during an earlier interview that she was nervous and had adjusted her speech several times; however, she took one deep breath and began saying what she had waited for years to say, voicing her outrage and disgust at the Department of Defense, her gratitude for Brabo and Lorey and the citizens of King George County for allowing the memorial to be where it was and then she began saying goodbye to her beloved Scott.

She said that she had mixed emotions—anger and relief—about the day and that she had never dreamt of one day standing in front of a landfill, knowing that part of her husband, a United States Army soldier, would have been discarded as trash.  

“They told me nobody wanted him and so he was thrown out with the medical waste; he was just thrown into the trash,” she said.

Smith said that for her and for the other families who couldn’t attend it was important that the plaque be exactly where it was.  “I can feel Scott here with me today,” she said.  

As a slight breeze picked up and the early fall sun shone from behind large cumulous clouds against a blue sky, she closed her remarks, welling up as she said them: “Scott, I love you.  I miss you every day.  I know you deserved more than this, and I hope I’ve made you proud.”

As she closed her eyes and took a deep breath of relief, the crowd stood once more.  

Smith and Lorey then unveiled the three by three-foot bronze cast plaque inscribed:

“FOR HONOR, RESPECT AND IN MEMORY OF THOSE AMERICAN SERVICE MEMBERS KNOWN BUT TO GOD, WHO PAID THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE FOR OUR FREEDOM.  WE ARE EVER GRATEFUL. – The Citizens of King George County and a Grateful Nation.”

Patrick Gatewood, a student at King George High School played a powerful version of Taps, which had many in the crowd in tears, especially Gari-Lynn Smith, who closed her eyes and reached toward the plaque and touched it as if to reach out and touch her late husband Scott.

Andrea Stephens, whose husband is currently deployed in the Middle East is a mother of four—two of her own and two step-children—one of whom is 22-years-old and on active duty in the Army.  She said that what happened in King George was a disgrace for the Department of Defense.  

“The whole thing is appalling to me,” she said.  “I really feel the Department of Defense portrays itself as a support of all the people serving and of their families, but this case right here itself shows that they really don’t support military families and service members the way they should.”

In a cruel twist, a Waste Management senior official confirmed that, in fact, remains from the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the Unites States are also at the landfill…as are the remains of at least two of the al-Qaeda terrorists.

“I have no words to describe how I feel, I, I’m just so speechless,” Stephens said.

Gari-Lynn Smith, who was aware of the 9/11 remains said that her battle isn’t over.  She said that the fact that service members and victims of 9/11 are in the landfill strengthens her resolve to carry the torch on.  “I didn’t choose to voluntarily, but I will put together every piece of the puzzle,” she said.  

As for closure, she said that having been able to say goodbye to her husband in private with only an ABC News crew and The Journal invited along with her on Saturday was important to her.  

Cue placed two large rocks at the location where officials believe, based on timing and surveying, that SFC Scott Smith’s remains likely rest.  Gari-Lynn, who sat in a single chair in a beautiful field, no sign of trash, no smell of rotting, just the breeze, the rustle of shrubs and a few American bald eagles that flew above, placed a letter under the rock.  In a private moment when Cue, Brabo and the journalists walked away to give Gari-Lynn Smith, who was wearing microphones, some time to be alone, she whispered, “I love you Scott.  I miss you so much.  I hope I made you proud.  I hope I made all of you proud.  I love you so much.”  

Gari-Lynn Smith says she has not received an apology from either Secretaries of Defense Gates or Panetta nor has she received a letter or phone call from former President George W. Bush nor President Barack Obama.  

“That’s what I want,” she said as she walked to her car.    

 

Christopher Wiggins

 

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