Cremation drives inquiry of Afghanistan crash
A lingering mystery in the August 2011 helicopter crash that killed 30 U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan is why some bodies were cremated and some were not.
Larry Klayman, who runs the nonprofit watchdog group Freedom Watch, has sued the Defense Department under the Freedom of Information Act to force disclosure of details about the downing of the Chinook helicopter by a Taliban-fired rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan’s Tangi Valley.
The Washington Times on Oct. 20 published an extensive story on the Chinook mission, based on an initial reading of a 1,300-page investigative file on the crash. Some families said they want a new investigation, not only into the mission itself, but also how the bodies of loved ones were handled.
One case in particular has raised questions. When the CH-47 Chinook was hit and spun violently at 100 feet before crashing in a fireball, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Strange was flung beyond the wreckage.
Charles Strange of Philadelphia, Michael’s father, said two Navy casualty representatives informed him that his son was “burnt up.” Based on that information, he said, he and Michael’s mother authorized the petty officer’s cremation.
But Mr. Strange received a shock when he received a requested copy of his 25-yearold son’s autopsy in December 2011.
“I’m reading the papers,” he said. “His lungs are intact. His spleen is OK. Ribs are all right. I’m like, ‘What?’
“I looked at the picture. And my son did not have to be cremated. He was laying there. His one ankle was messed up. But he was laying there like he had a gun in his hand. He wasn’t burnt at all.”
The U.S. Central Command’s report on the crash, made public in September 2011, did not mention of the condition of Petty Officer Strange’s body.
In the report, an Army Ranger sergeant talked about counting 38 “skulls and Cspines” at the scene of the crash. Besides the 30 Americans, seven Afghan special forces soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were killed on the flight, which was assembled quickly to aid Rangers rounding up fleeing Taliban fighters.
Overtaken by “horrifying anger,” Mr. Strange said, he talked to a senior officer at Central Command but received no answer about the differences between the autopsy and the official report.
“I would not have minded having an open casket,” he said. “There is more closure to that than the therapist I’m seeing. There are religious beliefs. I’m Catholic.”
Petty Officer’s Strange’s Nov. 16, 2011, autopsy report from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System said he suffered burns to 40 percent of his body. But the body itself was intact with identifiable clothing.
“The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished male clad in clothing described below,” the report said. “The scalp hair is brown and measures up to 1 inch on the top of the head. The hair is singed on the right side of the head.”
Doug Hamburger, who is district manager for Walgreen Co. in Knoxville, Tenn., said his son, Patrick, an Army staff sergeant, was badly burned in the crash. Yet his body was not cremated.
“In our minds, we have to ask the question, ‘Why would they cremate Michael and they would not cremate Pat, who was so badly burnt?’” Mr. Hamburger said. “The funeral director at Dover [Air Force Base] had told me that it would probably be best not to view Pat.”
Asked about Mr. Strange’s assertion that he was misled, Navy Personnel Command spokesman Mike McLellan said in an email: “Navy officials provided a mortuary and casualty briefing to the family of Petty Officer Michael Strange and accomplished the disposition of his remains in accordance with the signed instructions provided by the Person Authorized to Direct Disposition.”
A spokesman for the Dover mortuary in Delaware declined to say how many of the 30 American bodies were cremated.
Mr. Klayman, who is representing the families of seven of those killed in the crash, said the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has agreed to review what happened.
“What we know is that the families have not been told the truth,” Mr. Klayman said. “They deserve answers. Were there bullets or shrapnel found in any of the bodies of our dead servicemen that could have been a result of a gunfight or the detonation of a device between our men and the seven Afghans switched out at the last minute? If some bodies were cremated, what was the military trying to hide?”
A transcript of Central Command’s official report says the seven Afghans listed on the mission’s manifest were not the Afghans on the flight. The report does not explain the reason for the discrepancy.