For four and a half years, Dr. Jerry Spencer worked as a medical examiner for the AFIP, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, near Washington, D.C. During his time there, Dr. Spencer helped identify victims in disasters such as the USS Cole, and the U.S. military plane crash in Columbia. He describes his experience as a busy one, and he puts it into perspective by saying: in Lubbock, we cover a total of 80 counties, but at the AFIP, we covered the world.
"It struck a mountain in the jungle, and it took them almost two weeks to find the plane," says medical examiner, Dr. Jerry Spencer.
Spencer says that disasters like these were the most challenging. You see, not too long ago, his job involved identifying every single body involved in a military accident.
"The most difficult ones are the high speed, high velocity airplane accidents where there may be fragmented bodies," he says.
Spencer says there are five ways medical examiners can identify a body:
In the military, all five methods must be used, but the DNA test is the most accurate.
"Since 1994, the U.S. military has obtained blood specimens from all U.S. military members. There may be no teeth, there may be no hands, so fingerprints and dental would be out, so they have DNA records to do that," Spencer says.
He also says that when bodies are brought in examiners are taught to use extreme caution, being away from the front line doesn't mean being away from danger.
"They're concerned about safety looking for grenades and bullets and stuff like that," he says.
Although Spencer remembers his years at the AFIP as difficult ones, he says in the end it was well worth it.
"There's tremendous gratification in identifying the victims. It really helps the family to know that they have their loved one," he says.
Dr. Spencer is now a medical examiner at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. We spoke with members of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology where Spencer used to work. They say they've been busy helping to identify the astronauts killed in the Columbia shuttle tragedy, but they are on standby in case the U.S. goes to war with Iraq.