Three years ago, the Dover Port Mortuary workers stood alone in the workplace, berated and ostracized by management for standing up to report undocumented and missing remains at the facility where all U.S. war dead are received and prepared -- practices that outraged the nation.
Thursday in Washington, William Zwicharowski, Mary Ellen Spera and James Parsons were recognized for their11 bravery when the independent Office of Special Counsel gave the trio its Public Servant of the Year award.
The three workers “had both courage and conscience,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “They put their personal interest at risk because they believed that the public interest required it.”
“You chose integrity, and you chose to speak out,” said Sen. Chris Coons, who offered words of praise along with Delaware delegation members Sen. Tom Carper and Rep. John Carney.
The three workers reluctantly accepted the praise. “I am so very humble and amazed that this is considered -- I guess, extraordinary,” Spera said afterward. “What I did was part of my job. It had to be done. I knew the risks I was taking going in. But it was something that had to happen.”
In lauding the trio, Carney said, “without these individuals stepping forward, we may not have known.”
Spera would have none of that. “The real heroes here are the ones that come through our doors, laying on their backs,” she said.
The saga began out of the public eye in 2009, when Spera told Zwicharowski, her first-level supervisor, and Trevor Dean, the deputy director of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, that some human remains were missing. An investigation ensued; Zwicharowski subsequently told the Air Force Inspector General that the inquiry had been mishandled and that he’d been adversely counseled for statements he’d given investigators
The OSC investigation, released Jan. 30, concluded there was “ a pattern of retaliation” against the trio by Quinton Keel, the Port Mortuary director; Dean; and Col. Robert Edmondson, the AFMAO commander. The Air Force agreed, and all three were disciplined.
For the three whistleblowers -- and for the surrounding community -- it was a shattering experience. “We had a hard couple of years,” Zwicharowski said following the ceremony.
“I got hate mail,” said Spera. “‘How could you do that? You betrayed leadership.’” Most of her mail was supportive, she said.
The mismanagement is now a thing of the past, the three workers said. Zwicharowski said that families of service members “can rest assured that their loved ones will be treated with a lot of dignity and respect.”
And all three workers sang the praises of OSC -- particularly Zwicharowski. “You saved my job,” he said, speaking to five staffers who were singled out for their work on the investigation. “And you probably saved my life. And I thank you.”