Friday, May 09, 2008

Cremating our Fallen Soldiers with Respect

It seems that the military still hasn't figured out the proper & respectful treatment of fallen soldiers and their families.

We know that the administration has ruled that there will be no photographs of flag covered caskets as they make their last journey home. We don't see those images as the bodies are flown into Dover AFB, the mortuary for the military. We have been told that there is a reception for every fallen soldier arriving at Dover with a general officer and an honor team from the Old Guard. We are told that every step of the way, everyone involved exhibits great reverence and respect for each fallen soldier. But we don't have evidence of this because there are no photographs and families are not welcome at Dover. Even if a family requests a photograph of their loved one's caskest, as I did 4 years ago, they are denied becase it is 'against Army regulations" and "it is for the privacy of the families". Despite my persistence, I never received a photograph. I was and remain heartbroken because the Army refused my simple request for a photograph from Dover that would have documented the final journey home for my son, Lt Ken Ballard.

Still today, it seems that the military has figured out one more way to show their disrespect for fallen soldiers. At a 3:30 press conference this afternoon (nice timing, release sucky news on Friday afternoon when no one is likely to notice), the Pentagon is recommending changes in the handling of troops' remains, after it was revealed that crematoriums contracted by the military handle both human and animal cremations. A military official said there have been no instances or charges that human and pet remains were mixed. But officials are now recommending that troops' remains be incinerated at a facility that is dedicated entirely to humans, in order to avoid any appearance of a problem. Defense Secretary Robert Gates believed the earlier situation was "insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

"Our heroes deserve to be better treated than that," Morrell said, he said Gates offered an apology to military families for the insensitivity.

Late this afternoon, I got a call from my friend, Diane in Pennsylvania, Neil's Gold Star Mom, who had received a call from a local media outlet in Pittsburgh, PA informing her of this development. Diane called me immediately to alert me to this new Friday factoid, knowing that Ken was cremated. I didn't think much about it until I remembered that Ken had been classified by the Army as "unviewable" because of the devastating head injury he had suffered, so I never was able to view his body back in June 2004. I knew if I asked the Army today to confirm that Ken's body was returned to California, that I would never know the truth, regardless of their response, as the Army had so mishandled so much about Ken's casualty process.

After Diane's call, I thought I remembered seeing the name & a local location on the receipt for the cremation, but who knows what I remembered from those awful first days? I immediately called the local funeral home that handled Ken's funeral and cremation to confirm that Ken's body and not remains were shipped to California for the services. I was assured that the military escort officer knew Ken personally and was able to identify that it was his body to the Mortuary. The fact that Ken was cremated in accordance with proper mortuary protocol is good news to me; that I had to ask the question is problematic. The families whose loved ones were cremated out of Dover will always wonder.

There have been some improvements to the casualty process. In the early days of the war, some bodies were returned home to their families in the belly of a commercial aircraft and offloaded to the cargo area of the airport to await the arrival of the hearse. There is no ceremony or reverence to that; those loved ones underneath the red, white and blue were not treated as precious cargo, they were left to sit among the bags and boxes awaiting processing. Families soon demanded that our sons & daughters deserved better and the policy was changed to allow a family to request that the their loved ones be delivered home in a private jet to the nearest airport.

Even in the 6th year of this war/occupation, the Department of Defense seems to be unable to avoid appearances of problems, even if there are none. There are some people who work within the casualty process who just don't get it and probably never will. These "bodies" are some one's loved one. They are a precious part of some one's life and they should be treated with dignity and respect as military families are promised. A family should never doubt that their loved one is treated with the utmost respect as befitting someone who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service for their country.

Our heroes do deserve to be better treated than that and so do those left behind.


Tony said...

Hi...I agree with your comments regarding this administration's past issues with handling of fallen soliders, but I have spent my life working in the deathcare industry and wanted to chime in about this new information. Several hundred funeral homes and cemeteries around the country are now conducting pet care services. Although regulated by various state authorities, I do not know of any instance where cremating humans and animals in the same cremation retort (cremation chamber) is lawful. This means that human bodies and animals must not be cremated in the same retorts and will be processed with different equipment. Technically, the crematory equipment is usually designed differently for humans and animals, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.

Do you have any information regarding specific misconduct by the funeral home that is losing its contract to cremate these human remains? Did they break any laws? Did they cremate pets and people in the same cremation chamber as is explicitly forbidden by statute or regulation? Tens of thousands of human bodies are being cremated annually by funeral firms that also handle pet cremations. Please don't find me insensitive, but I do not believe this was any intentional act of disrespect. Let's look at it another way: Every day, recently deceased individuals lay on the same stretchers, refrigeration trays, autopsy and embalming tables, etc. where typically thousands of dead went before (occupying these surfaces.) Certainly some of these dead individuals of the past could be considered by some to be the worst of the worst: murderers, rapists, child molesters, and so on. With further thought, could someone find it offensive that Grandpa or Mom or a spouse or their beloved child temporarily lays (oftentimes fully nude) on the same spot as someone who may be so unbelievably unacceptable to you or me. Or, what if a loved one’s body is concurrently sharing the same refrigerator unit, morgue, or embalming operating room with another "disreputable" dead individual? The overwhelming majority of funeral homes/mortuaries/crematories throughout the country handle human remains with the utmost of respect, dignity, and reverence.

Because of this story involving our lost soldiers and the Pentagon, it seems that many people are going to now become aware that facilities across the country have, for some time now, been publicly advertising that they also can cremate or offer pet memorialization products when someone loses a dog or a cat, or maybe even a ferret (like my childhood buddy Nosy.) If you want to demand change, then you will need to start the process to stop all deathcare-related firms that handle human remains from providing services for pets. Because over the coming week, grandmothers, aunts and uncles, cousins, and brothers or sisters throughout the country are going to be cremated somewhere that also handles pets either in the same cremation retort area, or in another building on the premises. Where is the outrage for Grandma? I do appreciate you providing the forum for commentary and discussion.

Tony said...

I accidentally omitted my final thought to you, and that was me desiring to give you my acknowledgment on the incredibly painful and unique journey that you have made and will continue on throughout your life. Again, thank you for writing about these issues and please accept my comments as merely additional information in this matter.

GSMSO said...


Thanks for taking the time to write your carefully thought out words. I'm with you on everything you say and I totally understand the mingling of "good guys and bad guys". That was my son's body laying in the retort, but it wasn't my son. It doesn't really matter where it happened or who was before and after.

The issues that I think will be shocking or maybe just surprising to people is the idea that the remains *could* be co-mingled. This country has seen cases where remains were thrown out the back of the building thoughtlessly or stored carelessly and illegally in storage sheds- unusual, but we have heard of these instances, nonetheless.

I had an old boss who told me "perception is reality" and that is probably what this story will turn into- perception about how the military treats the bodies of fallen soldiers. The sign near the crematorium that said "Friends Forever Pet Cremation Service.", could indicate that this was a pet crematorium being used by the military for our fallen and it would demand a second look for most visitors. It just doesn't look good.

Despite my son being a 4th generation Army officer, and with some expectations of how a soldier and their family might be treated in the event of the ultimate sacrifice, I could not have been more wrong. In our case the Army messed up so badly and in so many places that I received a letter of apology from the Secretary of the Army and a private visit with him. When I heard this story this afternoon, I felt like I was punched in the gut and it brought me back to those early days 4 years ago. It was a nightmare to me wondering once again, how families could trust the military.

This administration's track record of secrecy and arrogance doesn't give one confidence during a time where you should not have to question that these young men and women are ever treated with anything less than the highest dignity and honor. It's sad, but it is so.

thanks too, for your kind closing words.