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Mortuary scandal lingers for Marine's family

Jun. 24, 2012 - 10:52AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 24, 2012 - 10:52AM  |  
Bonnie Angus, second from left facing camera, and family members mourn after her husband's flag-draped casket arrives at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., in February 2010. Angus was killed Jan. 24 by an improvised explosive device in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Bonnie Angus, second from left facing camera, and family members mourn after her husband's flag-draped casket arrives at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., in February 2010. Angus was killed Jan. 24 by an improvised explosive device in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Stephen J. Coddington / St. Petersburg Times via A)
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Daniel Angus ()

Nearly two years after the death of their son in Afghanistan, William and Kathy Angus traveled to the Tennessee mountains that the Marine sergeant loved more than any place else in the world.

William Angus told his family that he could almost sense his son's presence there. For the first time since Daniel Angus, 28, was killed in a bomb blast while on patrol in Helmand province in January 2010, his family felt they'd finally begun to heal.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 4, the Anguses received a surprise visit at their Thonotosassa, Fla., home from the casualty assistance officer who'd helped them through Daniel's death.

"He had a telephone in his hand," Kathy Angus recalled. "He said the Pentagon will be calling. I kept asking him why."

He replied that a gag order prevented him from saying anything. He instead arranged for the call to come to his cellphone so the Anguses could listen together. A Pentagon official, a chaplain and Daniel's commanding officer came on the line.

Daniel's arm had been fused to his body at a 90-degree angle in the explosion, the family was told. Port Mortuary workers at Dover Air Force Base, Del., had "repositioned" the Marine's arm to fit him into a uniform.

Actually, they'd cut it off and put it in his pants leg.

It was among the most gruesome details revealed at the conclusion of an 18-month Air Force investigation in which three senior Dover officials were disciplined for "gross mismanagement."

Those details were about to go public. Although the service never identified Daniel, his name quickly surfaced in media reports. His sister, Tracy Maivelle, soon found her phone ringing off the hook. News crews showed up in William and Kathy's driveway.

The Anguses had questions for the Air Force. Before arriving at Dover to witness the arrival of Daniel's remains, they had decided to have him cremated. They'd signed official paperwork indicating as much. Why, they wanted to know, had anyone tried to put his body in uniform in the first place? And why tell the Anguses about it now, nearly two years later?

Months later, many of those questions still remain for the Angus family. The furor over Dover and the handling of remains like those of Daniel Angus has subsided. Yet the Anguses say they have yet to receive an apology from anybody involved in the Dover scandal.

What they do have to show for their grief from the Air Force is a thick binder detailing the things that had been done to Daniel at Dover grisly details they say they could have done without.

"You're trying to get through the grieving process, and you're instantly brought back to square one," Maivelle said of that November day. "Who wants to be the poster child for your child being mutilated by the mortuary?"

‘Never sat still'

Kathy Angus sums up her son this way: "He was his own person."

She remembers giving him his first screwdriver set when he was still a child. Daniel played quietly by himself for a long time, and his mom figured he must have taken quite an interest in his new toy. When she walked through the bedroom door, it fell from its hinges. Daniel had put the new set to work by removing all of the screws.

"One thing I can tell you about Daniel is from kindergarten through 12th grade, he never had homework. Every day I'd ask him if he had homework. He always said no. He's the only person in the whole universe who had no homework."

He loved to be outside. Daniel learned to ride a bike long before Maivelle, who was two years his senior. When he got older, he bought a big truck and a big four-wheeler, and he'd drive them through mud bogs every chance he got. He loved to hunt and fish.

"He never sat still for more than 20 seconds," Maivelle said.

In 2003, three years after graduating from high school, Daniel gave up a construction job and joined the Marine Corps.

Some of Daniel's childhood friends had made bad choices; three had died of overdoses, Maivelle said. Daniel "wanted to do something and be something. He wanted to see the world."

On a fishing trip to Tennessee, he met the woman who would become his wife, Bonnie. Their daughter, Kaitlyn, was born in 2008.

After Daniel had completed two tours in Iraq, Kathy Angus hoped he would get a job at Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., a relatively short drive from the family's Florida home, so she could visit her granddaughter. "I tried to talk him out of the infantry," she said.

He did go to Parris Island for a few years, making sergeant while he was there. But Daniel wanted to return to the infantry. He headed to Camp Lejeune, N.C., at the first opportunity.

"He loved the Marine Corps. He fit right in," Maivelle said. "He got to boss people around. He liked that, too."

In December 2009, Daniel left for his third and what would be his final combat tour.

"The first two times, he didn't mind so much," Maivelle said. "The last time, he was nervous, because it was his job to make sure everyone was safe."

Kathy Angus remembers her last conversation with her son. It was New Year's. She told him not to drink and drive, even though "there was no alcohol over there, anyway."

Maivelle's conversations with her younger brother were almost always short and sweet, until that last one. Maivelle was pregnant with her first child, a boy. Daniel kidded her about baby names; the siblings often showed their love through sarcasm. They spoke for two hours. Maivelle did not even consider that she might not hear from him again.

"We had a false sense of hope," she said. "He'd come home safely twice before."

A phone call and a big book

Daniel, with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, was on routine foot patrol in Marjah on Jan. 24, 2010, when his platoon was ambushed by Taliban militants, according to news reports. He and Lance Cpl. Zachary Smith, 19, were killed by the blast of an improvised explosive device while trying to provide cover for other Marines.

Maivelle went into labor as her parents were boarding a plane to Dover. Kathy Angus remembers the bus ride, with other families of the fallen, from the hotel to the airport, and the freezing air as white-gloved men removed their loved ones' caskets from the plane. Afterward, she said, "we went back in and made decisions."

A report indicated Daniel had lost multiple limbs in the explosion, Kathy said. "In all the paperwork, everyone said he was nonviewable. I had no intention of opening the casket."

She signed a form for his cremation, which would take place in Florida where he was to be interred. She picked out an urn. They went home and tried to carry on. A month passed. The Anguses got a call from Port Mortuary asking whether they had viewed the body. They didn't know what to make of it. Later, the casualty assistance officer began asking who had decided on Daniel's cremation.

"I wasn't sure if I did the paperwork wrong. I had no clue," she said.

Then there was the visit in November, the call from the Pentagon, the media blitz.

The Air Force had determined in May 2011 that no regulations or laws were broken when mortuary officials failed to seek permission from the Angus family before sawing off his arm. An independent federal agency, the Office of Special Counsel, castigated that conclusion, saying the service had stopped short of accepting accountability.

Back in Florida, the Anguses felt the same way. Maivelle wondered if the Air Force would have notified them at all if the story hadn't been on the verge of getting out.

The service made excuses, she said, telling the family the removal of Daniel's arm had been necessary. "It was always, ‘We're sorry, but … .' It was never a legitimate ‘sorry.' The only one who really said he was sorry was Daniel's commander in Afghanistan. He had nothing to do with it."

The Air Force told the Anguses an investigation was underway, Kathy Angus said. Service officials also sent them a 4-inch-thick binder filled with graphic information about the state of Daniel's remains and how they had embalmed him. It was "stuff I never, ever, ever wanted to know," she said. "I didn't know he had neither of his legs … it was devastating. It was like his death all over again.

"That phone call and that big book. That was it," she said. "They didn't so much as call us and say they had finished the investigation."

A reporter delivered that news in late May: The former commander of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, Col. Robert Edmondson who had previously been slapped with a letter of reprimand and denied future command for "gross mismanagement" had received a second letter of reprimand and had to forfeit $7,000 for retaliating against mortuary workers who'd blown the whistle on the mishandling of remains.

Trevor Dean, the civilian former deputy commander, was suspended for 20 days without pay for the reprisals. Quinton "Randy" Keel, the civilian ex-director of Port Mortuary, who resigned earlier this year, got a letter of censure.

"It's like a 17-year-old giving out his own punishment. … It's absolute ridiculousness," Kathy Agnus said.

"There's military law and there's the real world," Maivelle said. "It seems like a joke. Like nothing happened, that it was no big deal."

In response to questions about the binder the Angus family received and whether the service planned to issue an apology regarding the treatment of the Marine's remains, the Air Force issued this statement June 13: "We are truly saddened that lapses in our standards at Dover caused additional grief for the Angus family and other families of our Fallen. This was communicated to the Angus family by the general officer who first contacted the family regarding these matters, and we continue in that regret. The Air Force has made many changes at the Dover Port Mortuary, and will continue to implement the recommendations of the Abizaid Panel, to assure that we care for our Fallen with dignity, honor and respect. They and their families who have sacrificed so much deserve nothing less."

The Angus family said they are still waiting for an apology. Meanwhile, they try to move forward.

"You put one foot in front of the other and keep going," Kathy Angus said. "That's what we've been doing for two years."

Sometimes, Maivelle said, "it feels like he's still over there, and he's going to come home and drive me crazy again. Sometimes it feels like it's only been a couple days or a month."

Then she looks at her son, now 2, and realizes how much time has passed.

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