Back in my business reporting days, I covered a workshop intended to help small-business owners unravel the red tape of bidding for federal contracts.

Bidding for the contracts was an arduous process. But the men and women I interviewed told me it was worth the effort because winning a small contract could mean the difference between their small business thriving or dying.

After 9/11, it's probably even more complicated. That's not a bad thing. The federal government has a duty to know as much as possible about the people and companies with whom it does business.

Given all that, how did a company identified on a billboard as Friends Forever Pet Cremation Service get a government contract to cremate the remains of fallen service members? The crematorium uses separate crematories for humans and animals. About 200 service members have been cremated there since 2001.

This matter was discovered when an Army officer who works at the Pentagon traveled to Dover, Del., to attend the cremation of a military comrade. Offended by what he saw, the officer sent an e-mail to his superiors, including a photo of the crematorium sign. The e-mail was forwarded to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates the next day.

Gates found "the site and signage insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, as quoted by The Washington Post. "The families of the fallen have the secretary's deepest apology."

After 200 such cremations, what else was Gates to say?

The Air Force has ordered that use of the off-site crematory cease immediately, which is only appropriate but a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.

In a hastily arranged press conference Friday, Pentagon officials said they do not believe any humans were cremated in the pet crematory. Morrell went so far as to say, "We have absolutely no evidence whatsoever at this point that any human remains were at all ever mistreated."

But an interview with the crematory manager suggests that some service members responsible for escorting service members' remains merely dropped off bodies after paperwork was signed by crematory officials and returned the next day to sign for and pick up the remains.

Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz , director of the Air Force staff, said the Air Force is looking into whether it has "complete presence throughout this entire process," according to The Washington Post report. "Presence is very important."

It is unclear whether any military officer had visited either of the two crematories that hold the government contracts. The other facility is located within a funeral home.

Can you imagine how this news would set with the loved ones of a fallen soldier?

We're talking about the remains of fallen heroes. They deserve dignified treatment. Their families must be secure in the knowledge that their remains are handled with the utmost care from the time of their deaths, their arrival at Dover Air Force Base for funeral preparations and until they are interred or scattered.

These events erode that confidence. It's a shame because the vast majority of men and women at Dover who prepare service members' bodies for burial and escort their remains to their final resting places carry out their responsibilities with tremendous sensitivity and attention to detail.

Because they operate in such an atmosphere, it is mind-boggling that 200 bodies had been processed at a facility that also cremates pets before this issue came to light.

It is not at all surprising that someone dropped the ball on a government contract. It happens all the time in less-sensitive areas of government. This was not a garden-variety type of error such as a fish supplier delivering 5,000 pounds of pollock instead of 5,000 pound of cod to Fort Carson.

Handling the remains of fallen service members is the most solemn duty the Pentagon performs. These men and women deserve the very best care. An appropriate level of dignity cannot be achieved in a facility that also performs pet cremations.


Marjorie Cortez, whose World War II veteran father's military rites were handled with the utmost dignity so she knows why it matters, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at [email protected].