Friday, June 01, 2007

The D.E.R.T. Team of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware

Over four years have passed since the day that changed every life in America. This story is not about that fateful and horrible day. However, that day is the singular reason the D.E.R.T. team exists today. September 11, 2001 saw over 3,000 human beings murdered in terrorist attacks. Incredibly these atrocities occurred on our home soil, and all within a few hours drive of our small military base here in Delaware. Our free country suffered an incredibly destructive blow at the hands of pure evil. There could no longer be any doubt among free and loving people that evil exists. On September 11th that evil stood up and challenged our faith. The days following 9-11 are days filled with pain, suffering, and misery. It hurt every single one of us, scarring our souls, and searing our memories with previously unimaginable thoughts. Indeed, it destroyed the very foundation of our innate belief that we were safe. Suddenly we werent. During this time of trial, many heroes emerged. Those determined to find hope in fellow Americans through a deep and unshaken faith in their Higher Power. God helped the believers to close ranks and muster the strength to never give up. Those days were surreal for all of America, and the reality of despair was no different in our little corner of the world. That morning I remember sitting with Robert Sundquist in our Clinics waiting area watching in disbelief as the second plane hit the tower, and the subsequent disasters at the Pentagon and in Western Pennsylvania. The history of Dover Air Force Base in central Delaware is a long and distinguished one. Though small in size, with a shape mirroring the flight line, the base contains a major airlift hub supporting worldwide excursions in wartime and peace. In addition, the base contains the militarys only Port Mortuary. The mortuary is staffed by a diverse array of professionals from numerous federal agencies, along with active and reserve personnel from all military services. This essay is not an attempt to provide a total view of the installations impeccable mortuary service. Instead I will focus on a very small and distinct group of airmen. A group of ordinary Americans placed in an extraordinary situation and discovering that together, as a team, they could persevere and accomplish great things. This is the story of the D.E.R.T. team of Dover Dental Clinic, and its a story that I know well. While the dental clinic, like the base, has a long history of honorable service to its nation; I will pick up the story on the morning of 9-11 sitting in disbelief and watching history unfold with Dr. Sundquist. Moments after the second plane struck the WTC, and for the first time in my military career, the entire base went to real-world Delta. Gates were closed and base personnel were frozen in place. Doors in the dental clinic were locked as our staff remained in stunned silence. While I had only been at Dover for 10 months, I along with the staff knew exactly what this meant. Even before the Pentagon was hit later in the morning we realized that the mortuary would soon be filled with the tragic aftermath of what was unfolding in front of us on live television. And that meant we needed to prepare. Diane Beecher was currently in command of the clinic, and along with Roberto Lebron and Dan Hines began working the administrative side of preparations. Additional manning needed secured, chains of command needed briefing, and the dental clinic needed to get emotionally and physically prepared. And we had to do it quickly and accurately. On the information systems side our team was working hard on a dream. The subsequent buildup of hardware and technology allowed our clinic to achieve the unthinkable. Indeed, in only days the systems effort led by Hines stood up the capability and further executed the technology becoming the first forensic dental team in history to fully utilize digital radiology in a mass disaster response. On the medical logistics side Ed Anderson was working feverishly to obtain the bulk supplies that would be required for this mission. I was preparing a shift schedule, and helping to prepare the mortuaries dental area for its largest contingency in many years. This entire process was taking place in the old building. It stood in the parking lot of the new facility we enjoy today. And, it was a much more difficult place to work. The heating and cooling units were inadequate. Despite our efforts to maintain a neat and clean environment, the concrete floors, walls, and even equipment were stained with years of use. It stood for over three decades and enjoyed an incredible history of its own, culminating in the events following 9-11. So our team, along with hundreds of other professionals, were off and running. Let me remind you again, because it is important, this story is not meant to be comprehensive. Even on the dental side of the effort there are names and faces long since forgotten. We had help from numerous sources, including Andrews, Langley, and Keesler Air Force bases; along with a group of forensic dentists from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C. The old building quickly came to life. Soon the dining/break area was filled by the USO with a wide assortment of snacks and sundries. McDonalds often provided breakfast biscuits, and coffee was consumed by the gallon. It seemed the entire local community wanted to assist, and we on base genuinely appreciated the care and concern. The building swarmed with the FBI, OSI, and NCIS, along with numerous other universally recognized units such as AFIP, and OAFME, the armed forces medical examiners. Within days, helicopters began to ferry in human remains from the Pentagon. Not only those military and civilian personnel killed while working quietly at their desks, but also those souls aboard American Airlines Flight 77 destined for destruction. Body bags were opened, and now the devastation only days earlier just an eerie nightmare on CNN was among us. The earliest shocking hours are eternally etched in my mind. Faces distraught with grief were all around me, and on a bathroom break looking in the mirror I realized my face was no different. Probably everyone thinks about death at some time in their lives, but being confronted with it on a scale this large hurts one desperately and intimately. These were not just ordinary deaths one accepts with a fully-lived, aged life. Rather this was the death of lives cut short, with dreams terminated instantly, leaving families grappling with pain that can never disappear. The dead lay quietly. Those of us privileged to assist identify them did so diligently and with dignity. Only three days before the dead had been like us. They were living, breathing, warm and fleshy citizens, full of hope and desire wanting only to share life and love with their families and friends. Some were young, some a bit older, but all were now gone. Closing my eyes I still see their faces to this day. The face of death is not easy to forget. One victim was wearing a Timex Ironman sports watch, still ticking, and exactly like the one I had on. They were only 22 seconds apart. It may seem unusual that I would remember that, but frankly there is no way I could ever forget.

Amidst this pain our team worked courageously. Those early days are what defined who we are today. Following three 16-hour days our team was struggling and tired. We were beat up, and worn down, but the people on that team were highly motivated airmen, and refused to give up. To this day, I am positive each member was at Dover because of a higher purpose. I do not believe coincidence exists in this lifetime. This story is not about me, or any single one member of our team, or any single moment of time. This is a story of hope, and singleness of purpose, and deep inside being determined to serve fellow human beings at any cost. And that is what we did. Sunday morning rolled around and we were running two dental radiology rooms. I worked the middle one placing films in the mouths of the deceased, and was assisted by Melanie Key. Next door my old friend Steve Sedlock, and Summer Grager were performing the same tasks. We were bantering back and forth, trying to keep spirits high, and talking about how tough a situation we were in. We were exhausted, dirty, and feeling extremely sorry for the victims, their families, and to be perfectly honest, ourselves. It was a difficult time. Steve is one of the hardest workers and kindest human beings I have ever met. It was unusual to see and hear him discouraged. Still he pushed forward and refused to quit. On a quick break I went over to look in his eyes, and encourage him in any way I could. All around us the beat went on. The FBI was fingerprinting remains, AFIP was doing dental exams, and the Medical Examiners were prepping for autopsy. This entire scurry around us was within plain view. Across Steves chest I wrote with a Sharpie marker, D.E.R.T. The Dental Enlisted Response Team was born. Though we were just ordinary dental technicians and feeling unappreciated, we too were an important part of the process. And, I refused to let our team forget it. Quickly, Summer Grager added that if we were the D.E.R.T. team then she, Melanie, and Aisha Dean would become Dust Bunnies. So Steve Sedlock became the first member of our dedicated team. Other charter members, affectionately known as the DERTY Dozen are: myself, Dan Hines, Roberto Lebron, Greg McCulley, Ed Anderson, Summer Grager, Melanie Key, Aisha Dean, Phillipia Reynolds, Rebecca Taylor-Vogt, and April Kantner. Within days, a longtime friend and fellow team member suggested we change the title to Evidence rather than Enlisted. After all, it does take dentists to perform forensic dental exams. The effort wound down. In all, 189 human remains were processed by our team in about ten days. We eventually returned to the dental clinic, to patients, and other military duties. Time passed, and we were closer than ever. We had become family, caring about and fighting with, each other as only those closest to one another ever can. There is no way to forget what we went through together, and no doubt it bound us forever through common and shared experience. The D.E.R.T. story could very well have ended right here. But it did not. Just as Dan Hines quarterbacked the digital buildup, he now chose to tackle this cause. He sensed a higher mission, and looking back, he was right. He chose an emblematic design from the 436th dental clinic, and built a challenge coin around it. The very first D.E.R.T. coin was issued to Diane Beecher, our flight commander, for commitment and leadership to her troops. In very short order the DERTY Dozen also had coins in pocket, as a small token of remembrance for what we endured together. For the record, and I assure you it is fact, the list of team leaders is short. It includes myself, Hines, Anderson, Lebron, and currently Mike Hoard and Jennifer Jones. Becoming the team leader is always by appointment and consensus of the original twelve. While officers and civilians can only be honorary members, we have had three D.E.R.T. commanders. They are Diane Beecher, Kirby Amonson, and presently William Vosburgh. There are no comprehensive lists of actual members, as there is no one person singularly responsible for our existence. Hundreds have been admitted to our humble dental forensics team. Our legacy for service continues today. Since March 2003 the D.E.R.T. team has helped identify and return to their homes 2000 American heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom. Our team members have continued to rotate/change in the face of PCS and retirements. However, one thing remains the same today, as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow. The D.E.R.T. team serves with honor and distinction and continues to embody the Air Force ideals of integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. Let me assure all who read this that serving with this team has been the highlight of my six assignment, 21-year military career. The people that have worked alongside me under circumstances that human beings should not have to endure are people that I love. Today more than ever I understand that God brought us together to achieve what none of us could have accomplished alone. Not one member has ever been more, or less valuable, than any other. Every single member has made me proud to be a part of something greater than myself, and a part of something that will stand long after we are all gone. If you have been presented a coin, treasure it, and know that those who came before were just like you, and determined to make this world a better place for us all. May God Bless You and God Bless America.

Editor Note: This short article was written by myself in the summer of 2005. It was meant to leave an account of the small group of dental forensics members that were dedicated to their fellow human beings; and more importantly, cared about deeply and took care of each other during a devastating period in all of our lives. Presently, I am working on a manuscript providing a much more detailed account of those two years, but also presenting the incredible emotional and physical toll it placed on the individual team members.