Investigation of offer to view John Glenn's body rekindles Dover military mortuary scandal
By CRAIG WHITLOCK | The Washington Post | Published: May 26, 2017
A scandal involving the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, the main point of entry for U.S. troops killed overseas, has rekindled with controversy over the care of astronaut John Glenn's body.
On Monday, the Air Force reassigned the mortuary branch chief at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and opened an investigation into whether he improperly offered to allow a team of inspectors to view the embalmed corpse of former senator John Glenn, D-Ohio.
Glenn, 95, died Dec. 6 in Ohio. But his widow, Annie, wanted to wait until April 6, the couple's wedding anniversary, to bury the former Marine pilot and astronaut at Arlington National Cemetery. So his body was transferred to the Dover mortuary for safekeeping.
In early March, a team of Pentagon inspectors was visiting the mortuary when the branch chief, William Zwicharowski, asked if they wanted to view Glenn's body. Military officials said the inspectors were shocked by the offer, which they declined but reported up the chain of command as a breach of protocol.
The Air Force inspector general is now investigating the incident and other unspecified management practices at the mortuary, officials said.
The investigation revives painful memories of a 2011 scandal that involved missing body parts, a mutilated corpse and other systemic problems.
That scandal was exposed by four whistleblowers at the mortuary who were disciplined or fired by commanders at Dover for reporting the troubles. One of those whistleblowers was Zwicharowski — who told The Washington Post Friday that the investigation into the Glenn incident was another attempt by higher-ups in the Air Force to punish him for speaking out.
"I have a target on my back," he said. "It's continued retaliation."
Zwicharowski said he did nothing improper by offering to let the inspectors view Glenn's remains. He said his staff had further embalmed the body because Glenn's funeral was still weeks away and wanted to show the inspectors their techniques.
"I was proud of the job we did and wanted them to see our care and work," he said. "After all, that was what we were being inspected for."
Air Force officials denied they were retaliating against Zwicharowski but declined to comment in detail about the investigation, citing privacy concerns.
"The Air Force takes extremely seriously its responsibility to fulfill the nation's sacred commitment of ensuring dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and care, service and support to their families," the service said in a statement.
Zwicharowski and other personnel at Dover questioned the legitimacy of the Pentagon inspection team. They noted that two of its members had previously served at the mortuary and had been publicly implicated in the 2011 scandal for their role in the mutilation of the body of a Marine killed by a bomb in Afghanistan.
The body of Marine Sgt. Daniel Angus was shattered, and his upper left arm was frozen at an angle that made it impossible to dress him in uniform. Without notifying his family, two embalmers sawed off Angus's arm so they could fit him in his casket.
Whistleblowers, including Zwicharowski, reported the incident to outside investigators at the time as a desecration of the dead. The two embalmers said they were following orders and were not disciplined, though they were transferred to other military jobs.
Zwicharowski and other mortuary workers said they were stunned when the two embalmers returned to Dover in March as part of the Pentagon inspection team. "It's absolutely insane," said a Dover official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was worried about reprisal. "Those people don't have any credibility."
Defense Department officials did not respond to requests for comment about the members on the inspection team.
Other than the incident involving Glenn's body, Air Force officials said the inspection itself was a success. The mortuary passed with a score of 94 percent.
The inspection was mandated as part of a series of reforms adopted by the Pentagon in the aftermath of the 2011 scandal in response to a groundswell of anger from Congress and veterans groups over the treatment of fallen service members.
Among other disclosures, the scandal exposed the mortuary's hidden practice of dumping the incinerated partial remains of hundreds of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in a Virginia landfill. The remains were body fragments that — unbeknown to family members — were cremated, mixed with medical waste, taken to an incinerator and then disposed of.
The practice ended in 2008 but continues to haunt the military.
In another whistleblower case related to Dover, a federal administrative law judge last week blasted the Army in a ruling for appearing to justify the landfill dumping.
In that case, a war widow claimed she had been unfairly denied a new job by the Army as retaliation for revealing to The Post and a member of Congress that the Dover mortuary had secretly dumped some of her husband's incinerated remains in a landfill.
An Army lawyer argued in legal briefs that the widow, Garilynn Smith, should not be classified as a whistleblower because the landfill disposal did not violate regulations at the time and was not necessarily an undignified practice.
The judge ruled in favor of the widow and chastised the Army, saying it "should be disabused of the notion that a landfill is a dignified resting place for the remains of a U.S. Army Soldier who gave his life in the service of his nation."
Smith's husband, Sgt. 1st Class Scott Smith, was killed by a bomb in Iraq in 2007. It took her four years to find out that some of his body parts were not buried with his casket and instead had been incinerated and taken to the landfill.
Jason Guiliano, the lawyer representing the Army, said the judge twisted the meaning of his words.
"We understand the judge may see us as the bad agency that threw her husband in the trash," he told The Post. "Nobody thinks that's okay. It's just a technical legal argument as to whether she qualifies as a whistleblower." He said the Army would appeal the ruling.
In an interview, Garilynn Smith said the Army's stance was another sign of how the military has failed to take responsibility for mistreating the remains of her husband and other troops.
"As if their repugnant policies were not reprehensible enough," she said, "now they are making a nauseating defense which I find to be abhorrent and intellectually astounding."