The Consequences of Poor Judgment

From my earliest days as a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) midshipman, I was exposed to and expected to demonstrate the (Marine Corps’) fourteen leadership traits (memorized by countless Marines by the phrase “JJ DID TIE BUCKLE:” Judgment, Justice, Decisiveness, Integrity, Dependability, Tact, Initiative, Endurance, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty, Enthusiasm). As I progressed in my career until the day I retired, and even now as a contractor supporting different military organizations, my performance was and is constantly evaluated and measured against those traits, by those around me and by myself.

Today, I want to talk about the first of those traits against the backdrop of an issue that has recently been in the news….

The Marine Corps defines judgment as “your ability to think about things clearly, calmly, and in an orderly fashion so that you can make good decisions.” According to, judgment is defined as, “the ability to judge, make a decision, or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, especially in matters affecting action; good sense; discretion.” The common denominators are thinking clearly about matters and making good decisions.

Several years ago I wrote about how you can apply three simple questions to homeland security: What do I know? Who else needs to know what I know? Have I told them? Those questions are invaluable and can (and should) be applied to virtually every situation in which you have to interact with others. I believe that asking yourself those questions is a great way to exercise and help develop your judgment. These days, in a time of war, sound judgment is critically important, especially when it affects warriors and their families.

Starting on May 10, 2008, the public news media has reported that since 2001, the remains of approximately two hundred American warriors killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been cremated at a Dover Delaware facility that also has a smaller, separate attached building that cremates pets. This facility is located a few miles from Dover Air Force Base, where the remains of all U.S. service members killed overseas are sent. According to the Washington Post:

“The revelation came to light when an Army officer who works at the Pentagon traveled to Delaware on Thursday to attend the cremation of a military comrade. Offended to discover that the facility was labeled as a pet crematory [“Friends Forever Pet Cremation Services”], the officer sent an e-mail late Thursday night [May 8] to superiors at the Pentagon that included a photograph of the signage.”

On May 9, the Pentagon announced it had immediately stopped doing business with the funeral home. The Post article continued:

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates found "the site and signage insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen," [Pentagon press secretary Geoff] Morrell said. "The families of the fallen have the secretary's deepest apology," he said…"The secretary believes that it is inappropriate, even if though permissible under the rules and regulations, to cremate our fallen, our heroes, in a facility that also cremates pets," he added.”

According to the May 17 Wilmington (DE) News Journal:

“An inspection of [the] two crematories last weekend determined nothing untoward had occurred -- no commingling of ashes or improper dispositions.

But image is everything, said Lt. Col. Les A. Melnyk, Pentagon spokesman.

"I don't want to impugn any kind of fault to [the funeral home] here," Melnyk said, adding a review of the situation isn't complete. ‘They didn't violate any policies. They did everything honorably. It was just a matter of perception.’”

From my perspective, the results of this story are not very good. The funeral home lost its contract for doing nothing wrong and their reputation has been tarnished. The families of some fallen warriors may (probably?) feel hurt, embarrassed, or betrayed by the Defense Department. The Department has suffered a loss of credibility with respect to how it treats its fallen warriors. The only positive result I can see so far is that once again Secretary Gates has taken decisive action to correct a terrible lapse in judgment.

My initial reaction to this story was, “How could this ever happen?” That thought was quickly followed by wondering who the decision-makers were who did not question the situation nor see the potential reactions of the fallen warriors’ families and the American public to the story. I wanted to know, and still want to know: Who knew what, and when did they know it?

According to the Journal, there are some people who disagree with the Secretary Gates’ concerns and decision to cancel the funeral home’s contract:

“Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin Trently said he doesn't understand the uproar. During his 23 years in the military, he directed an Air Force honor guard and worked with grieving military families as a member of the mortuary affairs team.

"There is no discredit to someone just because there are pets being cremated nearby," said Trently, 45, employed at Capitol Cremation Services for the last two years. He works with both human and animal remains. ‘What's wrong with dogs all of a sudden?’”

I seriously question the judgment of whoever was involved in making or approving the decision to use this particular funeral home. From the Journal article, it is obvious that the funeral home was a professional business that treated our fallen warriors with the appropriate respect and dignity. However, from my limited experiences with cremations, I know I would find it a little unnerving to unexpectedly see and know that my loved one was being cremated in the same facility that also housed an advertised public pet crematory, especially during my heaviest period of grief. The last thing I, as a bereaved friend, loved one, or family member of a fallen warrior, would want to encounter as I approached the place where he or she was about to be cremated would be the additional stress, concerns, and uncertainty that would arise upon being surprised by signage for pet cremations.

To quote a popular radio commercial here in the northern Virginia area, “it’s the biggest no-brainer in the history of earth” to ask those three judgment-enhancing questions I mentioned earlier if I were the person who recommended giving a contract to that funeral home. I do not know if those questions were asked, or, if they were being asked, at what point they stopped being asked. All we know for sure is that Secretary Gates was not told of the situation until shortly before 9 May, and then he immediately cancelled the contract.

If the common denominators of the judgment definitions I mentioned are thinking clearly about matters and making good decisions, then it is clear that those involved in the funeral home contract’s decision-making process demonstrated extremely poor judgment. In this particular case, with the dignity of our fallen warriors and the comfort and peace-of-mind of their friends, loved ones, and families at stake, this extremely poor judgment is simply inexcusable and totally unacceptable.

Matthew Dodd is a Senior Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at Please send Feedback responses to