Cre­ma­tion drives in­quiry of Afghanistan crash

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

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.

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