Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Body Parts Story

A couple of months ago....some folks discovered the mortuary folks at Dover Air Force Base....were burning body parts as required by regulation, but then dumping the ashes in the local land dump.  This kind of shocked senior leadership around the Pentagon, so they had a complete investigation.

This week, they've come out and admitted that remains from the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and the aircraft crash site in Pennsylvania also fell into this burn and dump policy.  Naturally, this has upset a number of folks, both inside the Pentagon and across the nation.

How did this order or regulation come to start this mess?  Well....it would appear that the complex body parts regulation came down to say that if you couldn't readily identify the remaining parts....then they were burned like regular body parts from hospital operations.  A contractor team was supposed to conduct this burning.  No one really asked much after that point.  Body parts were body parts.....as far as these medical folks were concerned.  They were disposed of.....like you'd handle regular hospital waste.

I sat and pondered over this.

Back in 1978, I arrived at Rhein Main Air Base, Germany.  We had this great wing commander.  He'd get into his staff car around 9PM.  He'd drive over to the chow hall and pick up this huge thermos of coffee and some pastries.  He'd then drive around base and chat with security guys on night shift, the German guards at the front gate handling the drunks coming in, the emergency room personnel, the Air Postal Squadron folks fixing up pallets for movement, the night-shift truck repair guys, and a number of other folks.

He'd stop to offer up a cup of coffee and chat for ten minutes.  He'd ask questions.  You'd drink your coffee and chew on the pastry.  He'd want to know your process and what you were really doing.  You'd explain this and feel grateful for him coming around at night and being curious about your job.

This wing commander knew every nut and bolt of operation on the base.  If things were screwed up....he actually knew it and could react to it the next day.  Things got fixed.

I came to notice by the mid-1980s.....that wing commanders weren't doing this anymore.  Everyone was into statistics.  They had slides and spent hours and hours analyzing why fuel costs were so high or working on an idea to do the work of 108 people, with just 97 people.  No one actually went out anymore.....from both the senior officer ranks or the senior NCO ranks.

As I came to retire in 1999, I realized that most everyone of a certain grade or rank really had barely any idea how things really worked on base, or the screwed-up nature of what they were directing people to do. Everyone was in the change-the-change-to-the-change mentality.  You'd reorganize your organization, mostly because you couldn't understand why things were so screwed up.  Months later, the next guy arrived, and started his reorganization because you certainly didn't fix what was broke before.

So I come to Dover AFB and this body issue.  If you had brought a junior sailor, an Army private, and a Air Force NCO into a room and laid out the process how body parts were being disposed.....one of the three would have commented that it'd be better to just haul the ashes to a Coast Guard vessel and say a few words while out in the bay area....have a moment of silence, and dump the ashes properly.  The other two guys would have agreed.

If some Colonel had simply walked around in evening hours or during duty hours.....asking stupid questions.....he would have eventually stumbled upon this deal.  He would have asked the local Coast Guard to arrange a vessel once a month, and had the Chaplain from the base say a few words.  It wouldn't have taken much effort.

Instead, we have this mess sitting there, and dozens of Pentagon senior folks sitting around and discussing the various ways of fixing this.  It'll make for a great slide presentation, and some management study will eventually be written over this.  The sad thing is.....one curious Colonel with a thermos of coffee.....could have stumbled over this and quietly fixed this in fifteen minutes.  In the big picture of things....we have all become less capable, and more stupid.