WASHINGTON—A senior mortuary employee at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware twice offered horrified inspectors a peek at American icon John Glenn’s dead body while the famed astronaut awaited burial last year, according to an internal memo obtained by Military Times.
The disturbing allegation has outraged Pentagon officials and sparked a top-level investigation to determine whether misconduct was committed. The memo, written by Deborah Skillman, the Defense Department’s director of casualty and mortuary affairs, states the employee’s alleged actions were “clearly inappropriate and personally shocking.” The document is dated May 11.
Glenn, who in 1962 became the first American to orbit Earth, was 95 when he died Dec. 8. A combat-decorated Marine, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors April 6, on what would’ve been his 74th wedding anniversary.
Glenn’s family asked the Air Force to care for his remains in the interim, a request that was granted to “ensure an increased level of privacy and security for a renowned public servant, Marine Corps officer, and pioneer of space exploration,” Skillman’s memo states. It was during that time, first on Feb. 28 and again on March 2, when William Zwicharowski, the mortuary’s branch chief, “offered to allow the inspectors to view the deceased.” Skillman was among them.
“Moreover,” she wrote, “this offer to view the remains was also made in the presence of, and observed by, junior personnel on the Dover Mortuary Branch staff.”
Skillman, who led the inspection team that traveled to Dover, immediately alerted the mortuary’s deputy commander and asked him to address the matter with Zwicharowski.
“Concerning to me,” her memo states, “is that even after Mr. Zwicharowski was counseled by his chain of command regarding the inappropriate nature of his earlier offer, he repeated it.… This breach of protocol is serious and troubling as these offers were made to members of an official Department of Defense inspection team on-site to inspect the facility and determine whether it was in compliance with applicable procedures and policy and being well-run by its leadership.”
One defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “If he did that with our inspection team, who else did he make that offer to?”
Military Times made multiple attempts to contact Zwicharowski. All were unsuccessful.
The Glenn family has been notified of the allegations, officials said. Attempts to reach them were not successful either.
Based on the inspection team’s concerns, newly appointed Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has directed the service’s inspector general to investigate, said Col. Patrick S. Ryder, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon.
“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,” Ryder said. “At the conclusion of the investigation, the Air Force will determine what further corrective actions, if any, may be necessary and appropriate. If any allegations of misconduct are substantiated, those involved will be held accountable.”
Skillman noted in her memo that Zwicharowski made comments indicating he believed the inspection was an act of reprisal for having exposed, six years prior, how the mortuary mishandled the remains of some fallen service members returning home from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. She disputes that in memo, writing “it is important to note that this inspection was pursuant to a new DoD inspection policy, and three other sites had been inspected prior to the team’s inspection of Dover.”
It’s unclear what that new policy entails, though Ryder said the mortuary passed its inspection with a score of 94 percent.
Zwicharowski, along with two other mortuary employees, was at the center of a whistle-blower scandal that revealed body parts had gone missing or were disposed of improperly. They were subsequently honored with Public Servant of the Year awards after nearly being fired for going outside their chain of command to report what they believed were code violations, public-health dangers, and gross mismanagement.
In a 2013 interview with William H. McMichael of the Delaware News Journal, Zwicharowski said: “I want to guarantee the families of our fallen, in the past and in the future, that they’re treated with honor, dignity and respect here at Dover.… As long as I’m here, they’ll be treated that way.”
This article was originally published by Military Times, an independent media network with a proud, longstanding reputation for producing hard-knuckle accountability journalism. Based in Washington, its titles include Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times and Marine Corps Times.