Whistleblowers in military morgue scandal speak

Mary Ellen Spera, James Parsons and Bill Zwicharowski (l-r) are the mortuary technicians who first revealed the mishandling of American military remains at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
CBS News

The CBS Evening News reported Tuesday that remains of fallen American troops have been mishandled at Dover Air Force Base. After an investigation, the commander of the mortuary there received a career-ending letter of reprimand. CBS News correspondent David Martin kept working at the story and he found the mortuary workers who first reported the trouble and who paid a price.

They are people who almost never talk about their grim, heart-breaking work: Mortuary technicians at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where remains of the fallen come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Working at Dover, it's like you get a train wreck every single day, said Mary Ellen Spera who, at any one time, keeps track of a thousand different pieces of young bodies torn apart by war.

Then one day a piece of ankle belonging to a soldier went missing.

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"I went through the entire facility, every single rack," she recalled. "I couldn't find it."

"That must have been a terrible time," commented Martin.

"It's the job sir, and I am proud to do it," Spera said.

Bill Zwicharowski, a former Marine, has worked at Dover for 12 years and it was the first time a body part had gone missing. He didn't like the way the commander handled it.

"I think consideration should have been given to notify the family," he said. "That's the way I have been brought up in this business, is to face your mistake and take responsibility for it."

Then another body part went missing -- a four-inch piece of flesh belonging to either Capt. Thomas Gramith or Capt. Mark McDowell, the crew of an F-15 jet which crashed in Afghanistan.

James Parsons is another of the mortuary technicians who blew the whistle. He recalled: "I was the one who witnessed the bone being removed, being sawed off. To me, that was something that was disrespectful ... without the family being told or asked."

Spera said that the atmosphere at the mortuary was not conducive to raising your hand. "We had younger airmen that were working and they didn't feel confident to be able say, 'Hey wait a minute there is something wrong.' So this incident occurred and we weren't able to stop the presses and find what out what the problem was right then and there and resolve the issue."

These three decided to blow the whistle and call for an outside investigation -- a decision which nearly cost them their careers.

"I was terminated," said Parsons.

"I was given a letter of reprimand, said Zwicharowski, "and I was placed on eight months of administrative leave without a reason."

But a federal office created to protect whistle blowers stepped in. They are all back on the job now.

"Are the fallen being treated with the respect and dignity they deserve?" Martin asked Zwicharowski.

"I can guarantee the families their loved ones are being treated with honor, dignity and respect bar none. If we see that they are not, we have all jeopardized our careers, our jobs, to ensure that happens."

Zwicharowski added: "The hard part is to see the families to see the suffering. We do our best to prepare their sons and daughters to go home ... There is a section in our facility as well that is extremely hard because you see the pictures of children, the half-written letters, the things they held dear to them to the end. That is the part that is difficult for me."

CBS News talked to the father of Air Force pilot, Mark McDowell. He called the mix-up with his son's remains "unfortunate" but no longer an issue because, in his words, "Mark is in heaven."

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.