Dying at the age of 74, Doris Stauffer had suffered from dementia in her later years. During her time alive, she was cared for by her son, Jim Stauffer.
When the time came to put his mother to rest in 2013, Stauffer made the choice to donate he brain to medical research, hoping to possibly help find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
Not knowing where to turn, Stauffer took the advice of a nurse and contacted the now-defunct Biological Research (BRC), a company that brokers donations of human remains for the purposes of research. Signing a series of forms (including one prohibiting military, traffic-safety and other non-medical experiments), he watched as his mother was carted away by a BRC vehicle driver.
Ten days later, Stauffer received Doris’ cremated remains, not being told how they were used.
An investigation by Reuters would later show that the ashes Stauffer received were not that of a whole body- but just the hand of his mother. The rest, records show, went to a taxpayer-funded research project for the US Army, testing the effects of roadside bomb blasts (also known as IEDs) on human beings.
Dying an aging civilian in her 70s, Doris Stauffer’s body suffered the fate similar to that suffered by many young service members over the past decade- and then some.
Informed by a Reuters reporter instead of the US Army or the BRC, Jim Stauffer made attempts to hide his horror as he clutched his wife’s arm.
“We did right,” his wife, Lisa, told him. “They just did not honor our wishes.”
Internal records from the BRC and US Army show that 20 other bodies were used in the blast experiments without donor/relative permission, violating US Army policy. The bodies were sold by BRC for a little under six grand each.
Reuters reports that over 20,000 body parts from 5,000 corpses have been sold by BRC in over a decade, eventually resulting in the company going under- with CEO Stephen Gore pleaded guilty to fraud in 2015.
In a statement to Reuters, Gore said he tried to honor the wishes of donors and sent forms when researchers asked for them.
“This was an industry that had no formal regulations,” he said. “Many times I was simply overwhelmed and I tried to do the right thing but often did not.”
Army officials claim never received the consent signed forms from donors or their families, relying on assurances from BRC that families had consented to let the bodies be used in such experiments.
While the case into BRC is a long one, the US Army experiments were a little more cut-and-dry.
In the wake of two long, brutal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, blast research has been a hard-fought and crucial learning curve in the study of IED blasts on the human body. What has been learned so far is that the most vulnerable body parts are those in contact with the inside surfaces of the vehicle.
“It’s your feet, your butt in the seat, and to some extent your back,” said Army project director and civilian engineer Randy Coates, who works at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground.
While crash dummies were initially useful, they were unable to properly collect data on all angles of a blast effect, being unable to determine the effect of blasts from under a vehicle.
Enter the medical cadaver, which was able to sufficiently collect data from all angles. However, while cadavers were better at measuring blast effects, they could not replicate wounds- which prompted the US Army to create a test dummy that could show the effect of explosions. The US Army project that used Stauffer’s mother was such an experiment, which included more than one hundred deceased bodies and included researchers from nine universities.
Coates said that while donated bodies are not obliterated in explosions, the blasts do break bones and spines. In one experiment, two bodies wired to 100 biosensors flailed about but were left intact.
While the US Army has a policy requiring donors and next of kin to consent to the experiments, less than half of 34 people who were donated/self-donated were not informed of the experiments. Of those families, 16 did not want military experiments conducted. Twelve had explicitly rejected violent experiments and four made no choice.
Many families are outraged, including Marla Yale, whose grandfather -Army veteran Kurt Hollstein- had explicitly rejected being used by the government, an act of protest against the poor treatment he was provided by the VA. He died of cancer in 2013.
“This is almost beyond belief that his entire body went somewhere else without his permission, and especially to a place that he absolutely did not want to be,” Yale said after Reuters informed her of her grandfather’s fate. “To go to the Department of Defense is absolutely mind-boggling.”
Coates has rebutted that the Army acted in good faith, as it had believed that the consent forms they received from BRC were valid. When it was discovered that BRC was not acting within the law, the US Army halted the experiments and sent an officer to investigate.
“The Army was a victim of BRC business practices,” he said.
BRC head Stephen Gore had previously worked as an insurance salesman prior to creating his company and had no higher education credentials at the time of the company’s founding.
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