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Putting Her Foot Down and Getting the Boot

Gina Gray PHOTO
Gina Gray, who her boss said acted appropriately

By Dana Milbank
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Thursday, July 10, 2008

The ghost of Rummy is proving difficult to exorcise.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tried to sweep out the symbols of his predecessor's capricious reign, firing acolytes of Donald Rumsfeld and bringing glasnost to the Pentagon.

But in one area, Rummy's Rules still pertain: the attempt to hide from public view the returning war dead.

When Gina Gray took over as the public affairs director at Arlington National Cemetery about three months ago, she discovered that cemetery officials were attempting to impose new limits on media coverage of funerals of the Iraq war dead -- even after the fallen warriors' families granted permission for the coverage. She said that the new restrictions were wrong and that Army regulations didn't call for such limitations.

Six weeks after The Washington Post reported her efforts to restore media coverage of funerals, Gray was demoted. Twelve days ago, the Army fired her.

"Had I not put my foot down, had I just gone along with it and not said regulations were being violated, I'm sure I'd still be there," said the jobless Gray, who, over lunch yesterday in Crystal City, recounted what she is certain is her retaliatory dismissal. "It's about doing the right thing."

Army Secretary Pete Geren, in an interview last night, said he couldn't comment on Gray's firing. But he said the overall policy at Arlington is correct. "It appears to me that we've struck the right balance, consistent with the wishes of the family," the secretary said.

Gray, in tank top, jeans, Ray-Bans over her Army cap and flip-flops revealing pink toenails, struck an unlikely figure for a whistle-blower yesterday as she provided documents detailing her ill-fated and tumultuous few months at Arlington. She worked for eight years in the Army as a public affairs specialist in Germany, Italy and Iraq, then returned to Iraq as an army contractor doing media operations. While working with the 173rd Airborne in Iraq in 2003, her convoy was ambushed, and, she says, she still has some hearing loss from the explosion. The 30-year-old Arizonan was hired to work at Arlington in April.

Just 10 days on the job, she was handling media coverage for the burial of a Marine Colonel (William G. Hall) who had been killed in Iraq when she noticed that Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery's deputy superintendent, had moved the media area 50 yards away from the service, obstructing the photographs and making the service inaudible. The Washington Sketch column on April 24 noted that Gray pushed for more access to the service but was "apparently shot down by other cemetery officials."

Gates had his staff inquire with the cemetery about the article and was told that "the policy had not in any way changed," Gates's spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said yesterday. Geren, the army secretary, added that "the policy has not changed, and I understand the practice hasn't, either."

That, however, is false. Through at least 2005 -- during Rumsfeld's tenure, no less -- reporters were placed in a location where they could hear the prayers and the eulogies and film the handing of the folded flag to the next of kin. The coverage of the ceremonies -- in the nearly two-thirds of cases where families permitted it -- provided moving reminders to a distracted nation that there is a war going on. But the access gradually eroded, and Gray arrived to discover that it was gone.

And soon, so was Gray. After Gates's inquiry into The Post column, Gray, still days into her new job, began to get some rough treatment. "Gina, when you leave the building let me know," said a one-line e-mail from her supervisor, Phyllis White, on May 2. Then Gray was instructed not to work overtime without written approval, and then was ordered to take down a Marines poster from her cubicle wall. "Please change your title from public affairs director to public affairs officer," White instructed in a June 9 e-mail.

Gray complained to Arlington's superintendent, John Metzler, and was briefly removed from White and Higginbotham's supervision. But on May 27, White sent an e-mail announcing that "Mr. Metzler changed his mind, I will continue as your supervisor." The acrimony increased. Gray went to the hospital complaining of stress-related headaches; while she was recovering, her BlackBerry was disconnected, "to alleviate you from stress," as White put it.

Arlington's problems with the burial of the Iraq dead go far beyond Gray; the cemetery is now looking for its fourth public affairs director in the last few years. Gray contends that Higginbotham has been calling the families of the dead to encourage them not to allow media coverage at the funerals -- a charge confirmed by a high-ranking official at Arlington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Gray says Higginbotham told staff members that he called the family of the next soldier scheduled for burial at Arlington and that the family, which had originally approved coverage, had changed its mind. Gray charges that Higginbotham admitted he had been making such calls to families for a year and said that the families "appreciated him keeping the media out."

Higginbotham, White and Metzler did not respond to e-mail messages yesterday seeking their comment. An Army spokesman said Higginbotham and other Arlington officials call families only if their wishes regarding media coverage are unclear.

On June 27, Gray got her termination memo. White said Gray had "been disrespectful to me as your supervisor and failed to act in an inappropriate manner." Failed to act in an in appropriate manner? The termination notice was inadvertently revealing: Only at Arlington National Ceremony could it be considered a firing offense to act appropriately.



Commentary: Sam Donaldson Dissects Firing of Arlington National Cemetery Director
ABC News Vet Explains Importance of Opening up Graveside Services to the Press
by SAM DONALDSON
July 10, 2008
 
Sam Donaldson discusses the firing of the Arlington National Cemetery Director.

It was June 22, 1985, and as the coffins of four U.S. marines killed in El Salvador arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, President Reagan was there to publicly lead the nation in mourning their deaths.

I thought of that moment when I read in the Washington Post today that Gina Gray, the public affairs director at Arlington National Cemetery, had been fired.

Gina's sin was to attempt to roll back restrictions on press coverage of funerals of servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the families gave their permission — and only then — she believed that the press and the cameras should not be kept so far away from the graveside ceremonies that the public could neither see nor hear the services.

 But Gina's superiors did not want that — obviously on the theory that if the American public was reminded that Americans were dying in an unpopular war the public might step up the pressure on the administration to end it.

Gina's superiors are probably right. It is far easier to support a war policy if you don't see that people are actually dying in the cause ... unless of course, the public supports the cause as it did in World War II when the mothers who lost their sons put a "gold star" in their windows for all to see, bereft at their loss but proud of the sacrifice on behalf of the country.

No, you have to try to suppress the pictures of the fallen when the pubic doesn't believe the mission is worth it. Out of sight, out of mind.

So, Gina had to go.

And what would Ronald Reagan think about that? We can't be sure, but I remember what he said on that June day back in 1985 as he stood beside the coffins of the four dead U.S. Marines.

"When a serviceman dies, we feel a special anguish. When they're killed because they put themselves in harm's way for our sake, then we feel an anguish that cuts at the heart and cannot forget."



Arlington Official Fired After Dispute Over Coverage of Funerals
By Greg Mitchell
Courtesy of Editor & Publisher
Published: July 10, 2008

NEW YORK: It all began with an April 24, 2008 column in The Washington Post by Dana Milbank. It began, “Lieutenant Colonel Billy Hall, one of the most senior officers to be killed in the Iraq war, was laid to rest yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Pentagon doesn't want you to know that.”

Today, more than two months later, Milbank returns to the story — with news that the public affairs director at Arlington seems to have agreed with that assessment, and has now been fired, quite possibly as punishment.

Milbank had written back in April: “The family of 38-year-old Hall, who leaves behind two young daughters and two stepsons, gave their permission for the media to cover his Arlington burial -- a decision many grieving families make so that the nation will learn about their loved ones' sacrifice. But the military had other ideas, and they arranged the Marine's burial yesterday so that no sound, and few images, would make it into the public domain.

“That's a shame, because Hall's story is a moving reminder that the war in Iraq, forgotten by much of the nation, remains real and present for some.”

Today’s column is titled, “Putting Her Foot Down and Getting the Boot.” Milbank explains: “When Gina Gray took over as the public affairs director at Arlington National Cemetery about three months ago, she discovered that cemetery officials were attempting to impose new limits on media coverage of funerals of the Iraq war dead -- even after the fallen warriors' families granted permission for the coverage. She said that the new restrictions were wrong and that Army regulations didn't call for such limitations.

“Six weeks after The Washington Post reported her efforts to restore media coverage of funerals, Gray was demoted. Twelve days ago, the Army fired her. ‘Had I not put my foot down, had I just gone along with it and not said regulations were being violated, I'm sure I'd still be there,’ said the jobless Gray, who, over lunch yesterday in Crystal City, recounted what she is certain is her retaliatory dismissal. "It's about doing the right thing."

“Army Secretary Pete Geren, in an interview last night, said he couldn't comment on Gray's firing. But he said the overall policy at Arlington is correct. ‘It appears to me that we've struck the right balance, consistent with the wishes of the family,’ the secretary said.”

Gray got her termination notice on June 27, 2008.

Posted: 10 July 2008