“As a widow, all you care about is getting the body back, so I just kept saying, ‘Make sure nothing more happens, make sure they take care of him,’” Ziecha Norwillo explained from her home in Texas, recalling the chaotic days following the death in Bulgaria of her husband in June 2015.
“All I wanted, and his sister wanted, is recognition – knowing that it was Francis.”
But she was denied that chance after the body was handled “worse than a wild animal”, according to the funeral director who recently spoke to Ziecha.
Francis Norwillo, aged 41, died after a grenade, which was more than 30 years old, exploded in his hand at a Bulgarian firing range.
He was in Bulgaria on Pentagon business. A private contractor for a firm called Skybridge Tactical, he was brought in to help build a curriculum to train Syrian rebels in the use of Soviet-style weaponry.
It was the first stage of “Syria Train and Equip” programme, a secretive US project to crush Islamic state, ISIS.
At first it faltered, in part due to the tragedy in Bulgaria, but it then delivered more than a billion euros worth of weapons and ammunition to Syrian fighters and trained thousands of rebels.
“We went to pick up his body at the airport, he was in a sealed casket,” Ziecha told Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Al Jazeera English and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project as part of a joint investigation into the US’s arms pipeline to Syrian rebels.
“I just broke down when I saw it,” she added.
When the morgue owner managed to open the coffin with a welder, the news was not good. “So, she came back and said, ‘Well you’re not going to be able to see the body.’
Norwillo’s widow and his colleague, Michael Dougherty, who was injured in the blast, are suing two of the companies involved in the training programme, Purple Shovel and Regulus Global.
They complain also that neither the firms nor the US government has taken responsibility for the accident, almost three years on.
The Pentagon’s multi-billion-dollar Syria training program relies on contractors and sub-contractors, some with questionable pasts.
Ziecha Norwillo said she hoped the court case would help others taking on dangerous work without a military safety net.
Purple Shovel insists it intervened to speed up the repatriation of the body because it was its “moral duty”.
OG-7V warheads, produced in 1982, were fired by Francis Norwillo and his colleagues at the Bulgarian firing range. It was an OG-7V which exploded, killing Norwillo.
Despite not being able to see her husband’s body, Ziecha went ahead with the funeral. But a feeling that she needed to see him for the last time did not leave her.
Two years later, in 2017, it started to affect her sleep. “I had a dream … and in the dream I was talking to Francis and I said, ‘I wish I would have looked at your body because then I would have known.’
“I woke up and thought ‘What in the world is this about?’ It bothered me for about two days, so then I contacted the lady that owns the funeral home and messaged her and said: ‘Is there any information, anything you know that I don’t?’
“She contacted me right away and said: ‘We need to meet for lunch.’
“We went within two days and she proceeded to tell me that … my husband was handled worse than a wild animal. That she had taken pictures without me knowing, which I’m glad she did, that she had never seen anything in that form of state.”
She discovered why she had not been able to see her husband’s body: when the casket had been opened, his body was covered “head to toe” with maggots.
“Scooped up and put in a box which, being a veteran, killed in the military, I don’t believe that in any way he would have been treated like that.”
Ziecha said that her husband’s body had been returned to her within two weeks, which she describe as “rather quick”, but that the funeral home director said it had been “almost like he had been left out, where he was, and maybe a sheet thrown on”.
Michael said he had expected more from everyone involved, including the US embassy in Sofia.
“You kind of assume that the people you work with, even the US embassy, would have been more involved with that [repatriation of the body]. It’s our understanding … that it’s one of their main responsibilities, to ensure the proper return or repatriation.”
Purple Shovel responded to questions about the handling of Norwillo’s body, insisting it intervened to speed up the process.
A spokesman said in a written statement: “After the incident occurred, we felt the individual’s employer was not moving fast enough to recover the remains.
Please continue reading this article at its original location: Balkan Insight. The original article, written by Lawrence Mazouk, Ivan Angelovski, Jelena Cosic and Juliana Ruhfus, includes photos and a video.