It was after dusk on Nov. 4 when the Marine casualty assistance officer knocked on the door of the home of Kathy and William Angus in Thonotosassa, Fla. The Marine was bearing bad news. Again.
The last time, a similar knock from the same Marine had signaled a death knell. Their son, Sgt. Daniel Angus, 28, married and daddy to a little girl, had been killed by a bomb in Afghanistan. But that was almost two years ago. What did this solemn Marine standing outside want now?
The military, it turned out, had kept a painful secret. Before the funeral, while embalmers were preparing the remains of Angus's shattered body at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, they had trouble fitting him into a dress uniform.
The heat of the explosion had fused his upper left arm bone at an awkward angle. Without asking the parents' permission, the embalmers sawed it off, pinning a sleeve over the stump.
The Anguses were even more stunned, said a Tampa, Fla., lawyer representing them, to hear that the Air Force had concluded that the mortuary had done nothing wrong. A mortuary supervisor had insisted that the family had wanted to see their fallen Marine in uniform one last time, and this was the only way to make it happen.
Not so, according to the lawyer, Mark O'Brien, conveying the first public comments from the family. They said the mortuary had ignored their stated wishes, that they explicitly had wanted to avoid the sight of their son's traumatized remains.
"To find out nearly two years later that there were after-the-fact excuses made to at best justify, or at worst cover up, a terrible decision to cut off their son's arm without their permission is a slap in the face to them and to all other fallen Marines," O'Brien said.
The Anguses also did not know until this month that whistleblowers working at the Dover mortuary were so upset by what happened to their son that they eventually triggered a cascade of events that resulted in multiple federal investigations.
They documented "gross mismanagement" at the Delaware base charged with caring for America's war dead.
The investigations were carried out under strict confidentiality over the preceding 18 months, while the Anguses and other affected families were kept in the dark.
Air Force apology
Sitting in their home that night, the Anguses listened, in shock, and tried to understand. Before the news could sink in, they were told to brace themselves: The outcome of the investigations would be made public in a few days.
Over the next week, the Anguses learned from a blizzard of news reports that the mortuary supervisor who ordered their son's arm sawed off had not been fired. The Air Force said it accepted responsibility and apologized, but its investigators had concluded that the only rule violation concerned some missing paperwork.
The secretary of defense appointed a panel of experts to inspect the Dover mortuary, but only current operations, nothing that had happened in the past.
On top of their grief, that has made William and Kathy Angus very angry.
"Mr. and Mrs. Angus feel that everyone involved in the decision to dismember their son without permission, or involved in the aftermath of covering it up, should be immediately terminated from their positions and investigated for criminal wrongdoing. Anything short of this is not befitting the memory of their fallen son," O'Brien said.
Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff, said the mortuary acted with proper intentions.
"We honor the fallen and strive to follow the wishes of their families," he said. "We had reason to believe we were acting in the manner they requested and are truly saddened to learn this may not have been the case."
Daniel Angus grew up near Florida's Gulf Coast. He joined the Marines in 2003 and deployed twice to Iraq. In December 2009, just before his unit was scheduled to go to Afghanistan, Angus married his longtime girlfriend, Bonnie, the mother of his 2-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn.
Angus and his unit were on patrol in Helmand province on Jan. 24, 2010, when a roadside bomb exploded. Angus and two other Marines were killed.
By early February, his body had arrived at the Dover mortuary. Like many of the more than 6,000 casualties that have come to Dover over the past decade, Angus's remains were in a catastrophic state.
The bomb had obliterated his legs. His torso, face and head were largely intact, but his left arm was not. The forearm had been blown off, and the upper arm bone was frozen at a 90-degree angle, meaning he couldn't fit into a uniform for burial.
Given his condition, several embalmers judged that Angus should be buried in a "full body wrap," a blanket that carefully encases the remains in plastic sheeting and cotton.
Quinton Keel, a civilian who was the mortuary division director, overruled them. He said every effort should be made to prepare the body for an open casket, in uniform. He ordered an embalmer to remove the arm bone with a cross saw, even though several staff members had protested that such an act would be unethical and amount to "mutilation."
Keel later told investigators that he thought he was acting according to the family's wishes. He declined a request for comment through an Air Force spokesman.
As justification, the Air Force has cited an authorization form that Kathy Angus signed, under which the military "prepares, dresses and caskets the remains." Air Force investigators also asserted that the Anguses had given verbal instructions to prepare their son for a viewing, something the parents strenuously deny.
"From the moment they were told the news of their son's death," said O'Brien, their attorney, "they made the decision to cremate him so that they could remember him as he was, not what he had become as a result of the war."