By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force will discipline but not criminally charge an unspecified number of airmen over a photograph that went viral showing them clowning around with a coffin used to transport American war dead.
"No criminal conduct occurred. However, members who were involved in the photo received administrative actions documenting that their conduct brought discredit to both the military and themselves," Colonel Gregory Reese, commander of the 37th Training Group at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, told reporters on Monday.
The photograph, posted on Facebook late last year, shows 16 members of the Lackland-based 345th Training Squadron around one of the metal coffins used to transport U.S. war casualties.
An airman posed inside a coffin in chains playing dead with a noose around his neck. He is surrounded by others, some with their arms crossed. A caption reads: "Da Dumpt, De Dumpt, Sucks to be U."
Reese called it a "graduation photograph" taken as the airmen celebrated the completion of their training, which involved unloading cargo planes and had nothing to do with transporting war dead.
The Air Force placed "discredit letters" in their records, making promotion or re-enlistment difficult for them.
Air Force spokesman Gerry Proctor declined to say how many people were disciplined, who took the picture or whether that person is in the Air Force.
The photo, taken in August, came to light shortly after a U.S. investigation revealed in November the military's main mortuary -- at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware -- lost track of body parts twice and wrongfully removed a limb of a Marine.
The investigation found those who took it intended to remind colleagues they could be killed if they failed to pay attention while loading and unloading aircraft, Reese said.
When the Air Force Times reported on the picture, relatives of service members killed in action reacted angrily.
"How dare you!" said a letter published in the Times in December from Deedy Salie, who described herself as a military widow. "My husband came home in one of those boxes, not on his own two feet like these disgraceful people will. Shame on you!"
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Daniel Trotta)