Gruesome revelations about mishandling the nation's war dead mark the Air Force's second embarrassing failure in three years, following the time when airmen mistakenly flew a B-52 armed with nuclear weapons across the country.
The nuclear and mortuary missions are arguably the Air Force's most sensitive. Both require precision and are unforgiving of error. Neither is publicly visible. Shortcomings in either carry a heavy cost.
In both caring for battlefield casualties and maintaining custody of nuclear weapons, the Air Force has linked its failures indirectly to the intense demands and strain of fighting two wars simultaneously.
The first lapse cost senior Air Force leaders their jobs. Word this week that mortuary workers at Dover Air Force base in Delaware lost body parts of servicemen returning from Afghanistan now clouds the tenure of the leaders picked to prevent more scandals.
Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the Air Force's top general and its senior civilian in 2008 in response to a series of nuclear-related errors, starting with the mistaken arming of a B-52 bomber in 2007 with nuclear missiles and the unaware pilot flying over the U.S.
Less than a year after that lapse, the U.S. mistakenly shipped to Taiwan four electrical fuses designed for use on nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile. Independent reviews condemned the Air Force for a dramatic deterioration in managing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Since then, the service has instituted broad changes to improve oversight and management of the nuclear mission and inventory.
The current Air Force chief, Gen. Norton Schwartz, and his civilian boss, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, were picked by Gates to clean up sloppiness in the nuclear mission and get it back on track.
Now they are mired in the messy aftermath of Tuesday's disclosures from Dover. There is no sign that Schwartz or Donley will be sacked over this, although George Little, press secretary for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, told reporters Wednesday that Panetta had not yet ruled out "further accountability."
So far the Air Force has acted against three supervisors at the Dover mortuary, a colonel who was in command there and two civilians. Col. Robert Edmondson has since been placed in a non-command position at the Pentagon; Trevor Dean and Quinton R. Keel were moved to other jobs at Dover.
Schwartz may face questions on this from Congress when he appears Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify on other matters.
He may also be asked about a practice, halted three years ago, of burying cremated portions of war remains in a landfill. These were body parts recovered from the battlefield after intact remains had already been identified and returned to the family, in cases in which the family had previously authorized the military to dispose of such parts. An Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, said this practice was stopped in 2008 in favor of formally "retiring" such cremated remains at sea from aboard U.S. Navy ships.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Wednesday he was "deeply distressed" to hear of the Dover problems and has asked his staff to review the Air Force's investigation, which was based on allegations by three whistle-blowers at Dover.
GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a member of Levin's committee, called the Dover revelations "appalling beyond words." She said she could not understand why Schwartz did not fire those involved once he heard of the mistakes.
Richard DeNoyer, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the Dover trouble "exceeds on many levels" the anger that erupted in 2007 at disclosures of mistreatment of war wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and reports in 2009 of mislabeled or misplaced graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
"You only get one chance to return our fallen warriors to their families with all the dignity and respect they deserve from a grateful nation, and that mortuary affairs unit failed," DeNoyer said.
In explaining what went wrong at Dover between 2008 and 2010, Schwartz said the main problem was a combination of "action and inaction" by the three supervisors that amounted to "gross mismanagement."
There also was inadequate coordination between the two sets of staffs that perform the main duties at Dover: the medical examiners who autopsy and identify the remains and the morticians who do the embalming and other work to prepare remains for return to their families.
Schwartz and other Air Force officials also cited a connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular, they noted the emotional strain on the mortuary staff as they perform the gruesome work of caring for war dead. Many of those killed have been mutilated by roadside bombs.
The Air Force said that about 4,000 remains and partial remains were processed at Dover between 2008 and 2010. The casualty count was even higher in earlier years of the Iraq war. Dover is the only U.S. mortuary to receive and handle U.S. war dead from abroad.
"They operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week and are routinely responding to the trauma of war, working to return the remains of our fallen warriors to their families under challenging circumstances that are rarely encountered," anywhere else, Schwartz said.
In hindsight the Air Force also blamed its nuclear missteps in part on the demands of war.
"We found that there were some issues in our nuclear enterprise because we were so committed to the wars," Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, head of the U.S. Strategic Command responsible for nuclear weapons, told Congress last week, before the Dover revelations. "We found that perhaps at some level we had taken our eye from some of the most critical pieces of what it takes to have perfection as the standard."
Nuclear weapons played no role in either war. Kehler was asserting that because so much effort, attention and resources were being directed at Iraq in particular, the Air Force lost its focus in other areas.
The Air Force has not performed the lead combat role in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The service's aerial refueling, surveillance, reconnaissance, transport and close-air support missions have been an important feature of both conflicts.
There is a toll, nonetheless, on those at Dover charged with caring for the war dead, particularly when seen in the light of expectations among military families of mistake-free handling of every set of remains.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP