For the first time in Navy history, the service promoted a female mortician to senior chief petty officer.
Senior Chief Jessica Zugzda, originally from Perth, New York, is also just the second Navy mortician ever to become a senior chief petty officer, the Navy said Monday.
Although it’s rare for morticians to promote to E-8, Zugzda said she hopes her story encourages other sailors to not limit themselves and recognize what’s possible in the field.
“I want my junior sailors to be able to see their future doesn’t have a cap on it,” Zugzda said, according to a Navy news release. “They can continue to grow, excel, and achieve the unachievable.”
Zugzda is assigned to the U.S. Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, where she and her team are in charge of the dignified transfer of remains for a fallen service member.
The dignified transfer process occurs every time a U.S. service member dies while serving in a theater of operations and their remains are returned to the United States via Dover Air Force Base. After the remains are transferred from the aircraft to a vehicle, they are then carried to a mortuary facility.
Zugzda, who joined the Navy in 2004, noted that the job takes an emotional toll — one she didn’t fully realize until her current assignment.
“Until I was here at Dover Port Mortuary and experienced this mission firsthand, I never really understood the gravity that came with it,” she said. “As challenging as some days may be, though, it’s twice as rewarding.”
Zugzda advanced to senior chief petty officer in June.
Navy morticians fall under the hospital corpsman rating as a specific enlisted job classification, and the sea service is the only branch of the military with enlisted morticians, according to the Navy.
Although Zugzda originally envisioned becoming a forensic pathologist, she became interested in becoming a mortician after visiting a funeral home in 11th grade. She has no regrets about her career choice, she said.
“It has made me a stronger, more knowledgeable person and leader,” Zugzda said. “I’ve had the opportunity to serve alongside some wonderful people in places I never thought I would get to see.”