For Dover AFB mortuary whistleblowers, echoes of Arlington


Dover Air Force Base mortuary employee Mary Ellen Spera, left, speaks alongside James Parsons, center, and Bill Zwicharowski after an interview with The Associated Press about their whistleblower complaints that led to a Pentagon investigation of the nation's largest military mortuary in Wyoming, Del., on Nov. 11, 2011. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Before he was a whistleblower, William D. Zwicharowski beamed about the care the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan received when their remains arrived at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary.

Service members’ dress uniforms were meticulously prepared for funerals. Even for those whose remains were so damaged that their caskets had to be closed, their medals were polished to a shine, their patches affixed perfectly and measured to within an eighth of an inch. Every speck of lint was removed by masking tape and lint brushes.

In 2003, as Dover expected the first wave of war dead from Iraq to arrive, Zwicharowksi told reporters that service members “are very particular about their uniforms,” and that employees of the mortuary see their work as a noble calling.

“It’s an honorable mission,” he said, “and we take great pride in what we do.”

Eight years years later, however, the mortuary branch chief wrote the Office of the Special Counsel to say that Dover was in “a spiraling decline in the sacred care of our fallen over the past few years.”

He said that leadership at the mortuary “had very little or no experience in this extremely demanding, challenging ‘zero defect’ mission. . . . Leadership clearly avoided responsibility by not addressing the issue, and it was as if they were hoping it would go away. It did not go away.”

The results of an 18-month Air Force investigation released last week were reminiscent of the problems that federal investigators discovered last year at Arlington National Cemetery, which included mismarked and unmarked graves, urns that had been dug up and dumped in a dirt pile and millions of dollars wasted on contracts that produced nothing. At Dover, investigators found that two service members’ body parts — a soldier’s ankle and a piece of airman’s flesh — had disappeared. Dover officials also acknowledged sawing off a Marine’s arm, without informing the family, so that his body would fit in his casket.

In addition to those problems, The Washington Post reported last week that the mortuary had cremated some service members’ body parts and disposed of them in a Virginia landfill. That practice was stopped in 2008. Now the ashes are buried at sea.

Beyond the mishandling of remains, there are other similarities in the scandals that have tainted two of the nation’s most sacred places. Both unfolded slowly, out of public view for years. Both were exposed by whistleblowers who spoke up and allegedly faced retribution for doing so. Both sparked national outrage and federal investigations, which resulted in punishments and leadership changes — but also charges that the Pentagon failed to fully hold those responsible to account.

Now both are trying to restore their reputations and reassure furious veterans, service members and members of Congress that they will never allow such errors to happen again. Meanwhile, Arlington and Dover continue to face investigations .

Questions of retaliation, accountability

In its own report about the problems at Dover, the Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog agency, harshly criticized the Air Force’s investigation, saying that several of its “findings are not supported by the evidence presented and thus do not appear reasonable .”

Carolyn N. Lerner, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, also accused the Air Force of not fully holding those responsible to account: “I question whether the Air Force has taken appropriate disciplinary action.”

Her office is also investigating whether Dover punished the whistleblowers for speaking out. Two mortuary workers, James G. Parsons Sr., an autopsy embalming technician, and David Vance, a mortuary inspector, were fired last year. Lerner’s office quickly intervened, saying the terminations appeared to be reprisals for cooperating with federal investigators who were probing the mortuary. Two days later, Parsons and Vance were reinstated.

They were not the only employees who allegedly faced retribution for speaking out. Zwicharowski and Mary Ellen Spera, a mortuary specialist, also faced disciplinary actions “in reprisal for disclosing similar wrongdoing,” Lerner wrote in her report.

At a news conference, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that the alleged reprisals were “a serious issue” and that he will “ensure that all appropriate action” is taken.

At Arlington, there were also charges that whistleblowers were punished for speaking out.

In 2004, Smith, then the cemetery’s budget director, was concerned about what he thought were questionable contracts related to its effort to digitize burial records. He warned an official from the Office of Management and Budget, which forced Arlington to temporarily stop spending any more money on the project.

Shortly afterward, Smith said he was harassed and ultimately suspended for three days without pay. The Office of Special Counsel declined to take action on his complaint. But he also filed a grievance with the union, which successfully appealed his suspension. Smith retired from Arlington in 2007.

Another Arlington Cemetery employee, Gina Gray, who worked as a public affairs officer, also says she was fired in 2008 for bringing some of the cemetery’s problems to light. She has been credited with helping federal investigators discover many of Arlington’s problems.

Smith said he was not surprised that it took whistleblowers to expose the problems at Dover.

“What is surprising is that they were able to prevail and force the government to give them their jobs back,” he said. “I’m glad to hear that’s what happened.”

At a congressional hearing last year, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) blasted Army officials for ignoring Smith’s warnings. She and others have also been critical of the Army, saying it should have punished those in charge more severely.

While they were forced from their positions, Arlington’s top leaders, Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. and his deputy Thurman Higginbotham, retired with full benefits last year. Metzler received a letter of reprimand, which was removed from his file when he retired.

There has been a similar outcry over how the leadership at Dover has been treated.

Air Force Col. Robert H. Edmondson, the former mortuary commander from January 2009 to October 2010, is still on active duty but has been reassigned. He was issued a letter of reprimand. Quinton R. “Randy” Keel, who served as division director, was demoted in August and was assigned to another job at Dover that was created specifically for him. Trevor Dean, the mortuary’s top civilian deputy, also still works at Dover but voluntarily accepted a transfer to a lesser position in September.

In her report, Lerner wrote that she was concerned “that the retention of the individuals responsible for serious violations of rules and regulations, gross mismanagement, dishonesty, and misconduct sends an inappropriate message to the workforce.”

Meanwhile, the whistleblowers said they hoped that the investigations would bring much-needed change to the mortuary and refurbish the mortuary’s reputation. Spera ended her letter to the special counsel this way:

“I pray that my actions and those of the current leadership have restored faith in you, the American public.”

Staff researchers Julie Tate and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for The Post's Financial desk. He joined The Post in 2000 and has served as an editor on the Metro desk and as a reporter covering military affairs. He is the author of "As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard."
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