Wyoming, Del. The body of the Marine lay on a gurney at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, an arm bone jutting out from the torso.
Embalming technician James Parsons wondered how he would be able to get the stiffened arm back into position so that a uniform could be put on the corpse for a viewing. Parsons and a co-worker asked their supervisor, Quinton “Randy” Keel, what to do, and he told them to take the arm off, then left, according to Parsons.
“I’m thinking, ‘This is just wrong. We shouldn’t be doing this,’” Parsons recalled, contending that consent should have been obtained from the Marine’s family first.
Parsons refused to cut off the arm and instead stood and watched as his co-worker — a new employee still on probation — grabbed the saw and removed the limb, which was then placed alongside the Marine’s leg inside an undergarment that would be covered by his uniform.
A phone message left at a listing for Keel in Felton, Del., was not immediately returned Friday night.
After stewing for months about what happened, Parsons bypassed the military chain of command and reported the episode. He was one of three co-workers to complain about what they saw as callous or sloppy handling of remains at the main military mortuary for America’s war dead.
This week, the Air Force said it had punished three top officials at the Dover mortuary for “gross mismanagement,” including two instances in which body fragments from remains shipped home from Afghanistan were lost.
One of the cases involved fragments of ankle bone embedded in human tissue associated with two crew members recovered from an F-15 fighter that crashed in Afghanistan. The other involved a piece of human tissue an inch or two long.
The investigators concluded that the removal of the Marine’s arm had not violated any rule or regulation. But the Air Force has changed procedures to ensure that a representative of the deceased’s service, in this case the Marine Corps, has a say in whether the family should be contacted before a body is altered so significantly.
All three whistle-blowers — Parsons, Mary Ellen Spera and William Zwicharowski — said in an interview Friday that the problems at the mortuary 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 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.”
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 Keel, director of the mortuary, were reassigned to jobs dealing with families of the fallen and are no longer involved in mortuary operations.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has since ordered the Air Force to consider imposing even stronger punishments.
The three whistle-blowers said they went outside the chain of command after their supervisors failed to address problems there.
“In house, it was falling on deaf ears,” Zwicharowski said.
All three said the Air Force retaliated against them. Parsons said he was fired in 2010 but reinstated almost immediately, while Spera and Zwicharowski said they received letters of reprimand. Zwicharowski also said he was put on administrative leave for eight months and at one point was labeled “mentally unstable.”
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency within the federal government, is investigating the claims of retaliation.
Air Force spokesman Todd Spitler declined to respond directly to the claims of retaliation but said the actions of the whistleblowers have resulted in changes at the Mortuary Affairs Operations center.
“For the record, the employees who brought forth their concerns gave the Air Force an opportunity to make the operation at AFMAO better and stronger,” Spitler said in an email. “Their initiative allowed the Air Force to bring corrective actions and long-term improvements to management of AFMAO.”
The three mortuary workers said they have no regrets about what they did.