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CSI -- The Military Way

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by Master Sgt. Kimberly Spencer

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, TX -- Television today is inundated with shows on forensic science. Programs like “CSI” and “Dr. G., Medical Examiner” have piqued the public’s interest in how forensic experts find answers to questions surrounding a death.

But what happens if that death takes place on an Air Force base? Who has authority to investigate?

“Any time someone dies on federal property, a team of military forensic investigators are called to the scene by the security forces’ personnel at that base,” said Special Agent Julie Lecea, a forensic sciences consultant with the Air Force Office of Special Investigation at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

The forensic investigators work closely with regional medical examiners to determine the exact cause and manner of death, she said.

These regional medical examiners are appointed by the Armed Forces medical examiner at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md.

The institute consists of officer and enlisted servicemembers from the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as civilian employees who work for the Department of Defense.

Agent Lecea is one of only seven active-duty forensic sciences consultants in the Air Force.

Each consultant has a geographic area of responsibility. Agent Lecea’s includes Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.

“Right now I’m also covering Florida and Georgia while that region’s forensic sciences consultant is deployed,” she said.

She works closely with the local regional medical examiner, Maj. (Dr.) James Feig, who is also a staff pathologist at Wilford Hall Medical Center here.

“I wear two hats,” Dr. Feig said. “I work as a staff pathologist here at Wilford Hall on cases that come in from the operating room, primary care clinics and specialty clinics, as well as being the medical examiner for any deaths that occur in Texas, Louisiana and Georgia.”

Dr. Feig is one of only ten regional forensic pathologists in DOD.

“Every death is investigated with a high level of importance,” Agent Lecea said. “We want to ensure there is nothing left to chance and that we do not miss anything.”

“You never know exactly where the answer to your questions may be found,” Dr. Feig said.

The most important thing Agent Lecea said she does when called to the death scene is documentation.

“It is the medical examiner’s responsibility to determine the cause and manner of death, but they cannot physically be at every death scene, so they rely on investigators to thoroughly document what they see,” she said.

This documentation is done by taking notes and photographs and making sketches.

“Things like room temperature, the status of the lights, windows and doors, are as important for the medical examiner to know as the condition of the body,” Agent Lecea said.

Photos and sketches also help explain how things are found in relation to each other.

“Everything must be documented exactly as it was found, in case there is a need to reconstruct the scene later to answer more questions,” she said.

Consulting on about 200 cases a year, most are violent crimes against people and death investigations.

“However, we are not out to get anybody,” Agent Lecea said. “My job is to gather information to prove or disprove allegations. We're just looking for the truth.”

Once the documentation of the scene is complete, the body is taken to the regional medical examiner’s office for further evaluation.

“Redundancy is good,” Dr. Feig said. “We also document each step of the autopsy process using notes, photos and sketches.

A Wilford Hall photographer takes the photos during the documentation process here, while pathology residents assist the medical examiner in taking notes and compiling the detailed sketches.

Dental and radiology technicians may also be called upon to help during the autopsy.

“Scientific identification by comparison … dental exams may be done to include X-rays,” Dr. Feig said. “Also, if a case involves a human bite, a cast of the bite mark can be made to help identify the perpetrator, though we have not had to do this at Wilford Hall.”

Radiology is particularly important in pediatric deaths to rule out trauma.

“X-rays are also needed during aircraft mishaps to evaluate extremity injuries, and are especially critical in a case where there is a gunshot wound with a retained projectile,” Dr. Feig said.

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