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John Glenn’s remains were disrespected at the military's mortuary, Pentagon documents allege

This story was updated on May 26 to include William Zwicharowski's response to the Associated Press. 

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 earlier this 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.

John Glenn: A look back

John Glenn was a Marine Corps veteran of WWII and Korea, a test pilot, astronaut and U.S. Senator. As an aviator, he earned six Distinguished Flying Crosses and Nineteen Air Medals. He retired from the Marine Corps as a Colonel. He was buried April 6 at Arlington National Cemetery.

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."

Dover mortuary employee Bill Zwicharowski, seen here in 2011, is accused of twice asking members of a Defense Department inspection team if they wanted to view John Glenn's remains.

Photo Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

The inspectors declined "and at no time viewed the remains," officials told Military Times.

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.

However, a story published by the Associated Press on May 26, a day after Military Times' initial report, quoted Zwicharowski as saying in a text message that he's proud of the job he and his staff did in caring for Glenn's remains. 

The Glenn family has been notified of the allegations, officials said. Attempts to reach them were not successful either.

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.

Photo Credit: John Minchillo/AP

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."

Senior reporter Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at

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