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Honoring Soldiers in Life and Death

Q U I C K S C A N

A Shift in Policy
A Soldier's Take
A Loss for All—Pictures or Not


On April 5, Air Force Staff Sergeant Philip Myers returned home from the war in Iraq at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Maryland. Dover is the entry point to the United States for the caskets of soldiers killed overseas. Myers had been killed in Afghanistan the day before.

Before that date, you probably would have only heard about Sgt. Myers’s death in the papers, on the Internet or on the radio or TV news. For most Americans, his death would have been one more casualty in name only. That is because for the past 18 years, soldiers who have returned home to the United States after being killed in military action have done so in private.

In 1991, at the beginning of the Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush instituted a ban on media coverage of the return of soldiers’ remains to Dover. Occasionally, the ban has been lifted—such as the ceremony for the 17 Navy seamen killed in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, or when families have invited the media into their grief once their loved one has left Dover—but for the most part our war heroes have returned home unannounced, unnoticed and unheralded.

The ban is said to have been instituted to spare the grieving families from media intrusion. Some critics, however, claimed it hid the human cost of war and allowed Americans to become disconnected from its realities.

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A Shift in Policy

But that all changed earlier this year when the Department of Defense changed its policy. The ban came up during President Barack Obama’s first live prime-time press conference in late January, when he said he had asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to review the policy. About a month later, Gates announced the change, saying the decision “should be made by those most directly affected, on an individual basis, by the families of the fallen. We ought not presume to make that decision in their place.”

Since then, some families have welcomed the news cameras, saying they found comfort in sharing their grief, while others have chosen to mourn in private, away from the glare of cameras. Some veterans’ groups, such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have hailed the decision, saying it shows Americans the true cost of the war. Others say it is only a matter of time before the photos are used for less noble purposes.

How do those who serve feel about lifting the ban? I asked my friend Paul, who is in the Air Force and has served in Iraq, how he felt. I knew that, two weeks into his deployment, a member of his unit had been killed when his plane went down. Paul took part in the ceremony loading the casket onto the plane for the flight home to Dover.

“As an individual who has family and friends that serve and also as someone who is a member of a unit that lost someone in combat in 2007—I believe not only that photographs should be permitted, but also that the entire ceremony be televised just like the presidential funerals,” he said. “I’m not saying from-airport-to-grave and an eight-hour event on every channel, but as the C-5 arrives and unloads at Dover, the 30-45 minute ceremony should be a moment of silence for the country.

“It has been my experience that as the photographs are not taken and the sacrifices of these men, women, moms, dads, brothers and sisters are left to the humble reception of just their families, it seems as if a majority of the country moves on without acknowledging the sacrifice. I can appreciate the humble, quiet moments families would want to grieve in their own way alone, but we should realize it isn’t just a family losing someone—it is a loss the country bears as well. The ceremony should be something all Americans should experience, in order to appreciate fully the job done by our service members.”

As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, the daughter-in-law of a Navy seaman and the friend of a veteran of the most recent Iraqi war, I feel very close to this issue. While I am blessed that all of them survived their service, I can imagine how I might feel if that soldier were my dad, my brother, my sister, my friend.

On one hand, I think the coverage acknowledges the serviceperson and the ultimate sacrifice he or she made. It also reminds us of the reality of war. But I also see the mucky mess that can come if people or groups start using the photos to push their own agendas. There’s also the question of families who might want the photos for their own personal use. News outlets generally do not release their photos. And what if family members themselves cannot agree?

People often refer to caring for people “from the cradle to the grave” or for the entirety of their life. On March 2, 1943, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill coined this phrase amidst a discussion on national compulsory insurance. The Catholic Church certainly supports this idea through its beliefs and rituals.

With the change in this U.S. government policy, that concern for honoring the entire life of our servicemen and women—from the cradle to the grave—as well as respecting the wishes of their families is once again being met. It is right that the decision how best to honor them is left with those who have lost the most. But whether we see them come home or not, let us all share in the grief of their families. For it is on behalf of all of us that those who die are fighting.—S.H.B.

 


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