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Dover mortuary whistleblowers shocked by problems

WYOMING, Del. — Three whistleblowers whose complaints about the handling of soldiers’ remains led to an investigation of the nation’s largest military mortuary in Delaware say they were shocked and disturbed by some of the practices they witnessed.

The workers at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary also told The Associated Press on Friday that they went outside the chain of command after supervisors failed to address the problems and retaliated against them.

James Parsons, who was fired in September 2010, says he believes it was because he had reported an incident in which a supervisor told him and another mortuary worker to saw off an arm bone that protruded from the body of a Marine so the body could be placed in a uniform for viewing before burial.

“I never ever saw anything like that,” said Parsons, an embalming technician. He refused to saw off the arm, leaving the task to a probationary worker. Parsons said the worker, perhaps fearing for his job, sawed off the limb.

“It wasn’t our decision to make, as far as I’m concerned,” added Parsons, saying consent should have been sought first from the Marine’s family.

Parsons said he was reinstated almost immediately after being fired and assured there would be no further retaliation after he contacted a lawyer for the Office of Special Counsel, an independent investigative agency within the federal government.

“I believe that it was for retaliation and to impede the investigation,” he said of his firing.

Mortuary workers Mary Ellen Spera and William Zwicharowski said they, too, faced retaliation from superiors for questioning practices and reporting problems at the mortuary, including two incidents in which portions of human remains went missing.

Spera and Zwicharowski both received letters of reprimand for what supervisors deemed to be failures on their part. Zwicharowski, who has experience in dealing with mass casualties, also was suspended for five days for showing up at the mortuary after being told his help was not needed in dealing with victims of the 2009 Fort Hood shootings. He later was placed on eight months administrative leave, for reasons he still does not know.

All three whistleblowers said the problems have since been fixed, and that the families of fallen troops can be assured that the remains of their loved ones are being treated with dignity, honor and respect.

“Please trust us when we tell you that your loved ones are taken care of at Dover,” Zwicharowski said. “… Your loved ones can’t speak for themselves when they come through here, but we are going to speak for them, and we’re going to represent them.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that harsh criticism of the Air Force’s investigation of lost body parts at Dover prompted him to order the Air Force to consider imposing stronger punishment on those responsible.

The Air Force has said it took disciplinary action — but did not fire — three senior officials at the mortuary. Col. Robert H. Edmondson, commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover at the time, received a letter of reprimand. Trevor Dean, Edmondson’s top civilian deputy, and Quinton “Randy” Keel, director of the mortuary division at Dover, were reassigned to jobs dealing with families of the fallen and are no longer involved in mortuary operations.

Spera said she has yet to see the results of an internal investigation Edmondson ordered after she reported in April 2009 that a body part she went to collect for cremation was missing.

“I was devastated, I couldn’t believe it,” said Spera, who said she turned the mortuary upside down looking for the missing body part.

“I spent hours rebagging everything and checking everything and couldn’t find it,” she recalled. “It’s the first time anything like that ever happened.”

Zwicharowski said that after the second incident in which a portion of remains went missing in July 2009, he wrote to Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and John McCain of Arizona, as well as Vice President Joe Biden’s office, alerting them to problems at the mortuary.

“I wasn’t happy,” said Zwicharowski, who said he never heard back from Biden or McCain but credits Carper’s office with helping initiate the inspector general’s investigation.

“In-house, it was falling on deaf ears,” said Zwicharowski, who said at one point he had been labeled “mentally unstable” after a run-in with Keel.