Military medical officials did not effectively handle or track troops’ organs during or following autopsies and other investigations, the Department of Defense watchdog announced on Monday.

The Pentagon’s Inspector General office said the failures could cause “emotional distress” to some families whose burial wishes were not being met. It recommended that officials review where retained organs are stored and sent and encouraged a review of a policy that requires holding them for a decade.

“Implementation of the [IG’s] recommendations to address these shortfalls will help the DOD ensure greater transparency and efficiency in its policies and procedures in this very important area,” Pentagon Inspector General Robert P. Storch said in the press release.

The report found that the Defense Department generally did not establish consistent policies or processes for organ retention and disposition, meaning how remains are handled after death.

Officials with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System are authorized to determine the cause or manner of death of service members, which may require an autopsy and the retention of an individual’s organs for an investigation. Various DOD rules require officials to inform the deceased service member’s next of kin if that needs to occur; however, the report said, “DOD policy on notifying next of kin of retained organs has changed multiple times between 2006 and 2022.”

The report found officials did not effectively track organs that medical examiners retained during autopsies, citing a lack of clear policies or procedures to track retention, transportation, storage or release of retained organs. As a result, it said military officials may not be able to respond to next of kin requests for information on the status of the retained organs.

Meanwhile, the report found Defense Department officials did not obtain next of kin disposition instructions for just over half of the sample cases reviewed — 109 out of 208 cases. When instructions on what to do with those remains were obtained, DOD officials did not follow those disposition directions about 40 percent of the time.

In a 2012 case involving multiple retained organs, officials notified the next of kin, who asked to be allowed to decide what to do with the remains upon completion of an examination. However, there was no documentation that they were notified following the analysis, “and as of March 2023, the retained organs remained in the AFMES inventory,” the report said.

In another example, in 2010, officials had a case with multiple retained organs. They obtained disposition instructions from the next of kin, who asked for the remains to be cremated and shipped to a specific location. But as of March 2023, “the retained organs remained in the AFMES inventory and were not cremated or shipped.”

In September 2022, the report explained that DOD decided “specimens” in the possession of the AFMES would be held for 10 years unless the next of kin requested that they be returned, but the Pentagon Inspector General found that decision may not honor next of kin wishes, identifying 11 cases where that held true.

“Due to the time that has passed since the next of kin were first contacted, it is likely that the next of kin are not aware that [military medical] officials have not dispositioned these organs,” the report noted.

As of March 2023, officials had a total of 553 retained organs in their possession that needed disposition.

The acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness responded to the report by noting that the Defense Department concurred with the report’s findings and “is committed to addressing all the report’s recommendations.”

Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media

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