View Full Version : ‘It’s hard to go through again’

09-12-06, 12:21 PM
September 18, 2006
‘It’s hard to go through again’
Some families end up facing multiple burials

By Karen Jowers
Staff writer

Aymber McElroy knew the violent nature of her husband’s death, his vehicle blown up Jan. 22 by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Her Air Force casualty officer made it very clear to her, she said, that there could be multiple burials, as additional remains might be found. “My personality is that I want all the information up front,” she said.

“But it was painful anyway,” she said, when it actually happened. Weeks after Staff Sgt. Brian McElroy was buried Feb. 3 near his parents in Cedar Creek, Texas, she was notified that additional remains had been found.

“There was no fanfare with the second burial. They [Air Force officials] wanted to make it as painless as possible,” she said of the burial, held in early May.

“I opted not to go.”

On June 5, there was yet another burial, of additional remains of McElroy and his good friend Tech. Sgt. Jason Norton, who had been killed in the same vehicle.

“One of the biggest things about having the additional burials is, that over four months later, we were still burying them,” McElroy said. “It really hampers the grief process. A cloud hangs over your head that eventually they’re going to find more and you will have to deal with it.”

An unknown number of families have had to face the news that additional remains of their loved ones have been found, sometimes months after the funeral. Part of the issue is that officials attempt to return the body to the family as soon as possible. Then in their careful examination of the death scenes, military officials log in every bit of human remains found, down to the tiniest bit of human tissue, and check the DNA, attempting to match it. One source said thousands upon thousands of these samples have been logged.

Information on the exact number of human remains was not available from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at press time. That organization, which includes the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, notifies the branch of service when additional remains have been found.

“It’s very common to have multiple burials,” said Bonnie Carroll, founder and chairman of TAPS, or Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization dedicated to helping families and others close to service members who have died on active duty. “In traumatic death, this is the way it is.”

But when families find out about the additional remains, it reopens fresh wounds and emotions, she said.

When soldiers’ additional remains are found, Army casualty officials make every attempt to have the family’s initial casualty assistance officer make the notification, said spokeswoman Shari Lawrence. “It’s a really hard piece of information for the family to deal with,” Lawrence said. “Sometimes, it’s almost harder than the first notification.

“It’s very low key. The family may never tell anyone,” she added. “Many families choose not to be there” during the burial. If they have chosen to be notified about the additional remains, families have the options of cremating the remains or burying the remains either separately — usually on top of the casket — or within the casket.

“Each family makes their own decision about how they would like to handle the additional remains of their soldier,” she said.

Mary Ellen Bancroft was notified that additional remains of her husband had been found about a month after he was buried in California. “You’re so angry. It’s still so fresh. It’s hard to go through again,” said Bancroft, whose husband Capt. Matthew Bancroft, was killed with six other Marines on Jan. 9, 2002 in a KC-130 crash in Pakistan, the first Marine casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom.

And there was another problem. “How do you explain this to children?” she said.

Her youngest was 11 months old at the time, but she had to tell her two oldest children, who were close to their stepfather, because of the group burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

“My oldest son, who was 13, said, ‘I don’t want to think about Matt’s body flying all over the place. We already buried him. Don’t make me go through that again.’

“He said exactly what we were all feeling. You just don’t want to think about that,” Bancroft said.

When she questioned officials about the additional remains, Bancroft said they told her the multiple remains of the service members would fit into a container about the size of a coffee can.

“It seemed like it’s never-ending,” said Cris Norton, the widow of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jason Norton, who died with Brian McElroy. Her experience differed from that of Aymber McElroy. “No one ever said it was possible there would be extra remains,” she said.

Like other family members, she had signed a paper and checked a box during the fog of the first few days after her husband died. She made the choice to be notified if more remains were found. At the time, “I thought, ‘Of course.’”

But then it happened. A few weeks after the memorial service at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and after she had scattered her husband’s ashes in his home state of Oklahoma, she received a phone call: Additional remains had been found.

Because of the busy schedule at Arlington, the extra funeral service had to be postponed. The Air Force made the arrangements and paid for the family’s trip to Washington and accommodations so they could attend the service.

Norton has reversed her decision, so she won’t be notified in the future. Any additional remains will be buried in Arlington, she said.

“It saddens us to see our widows’ period of grief complicated by these unanticipated circumstances, making their grief deeper,” said Edith Smith, a member of the government relations committee of the Gold Star Wives of America. “We would like to see the military services be more open about these burial situations that can happen.”

From what they saw, the widows said the military treated their husbands’ additional remains with the same dignity and respect that had been given at the first funerals, with full honors.

“It was a lovely funeral. I remember that one a little more than the first funeral,” said Bancroft, a member of Gold Star Wives. “There was no personal attachment for me. I felt it wasn’t my husband’s funeral.”

McElroy and Norton both said they are still in denial that their husbands are dead. “But my belief is that what’s left of his organic matter is not who he is,” McElroy said.

“That’s not Brian down there.”