U.S. Mortuary Sees No Let-Up from Iraq War Dead

DOVER, Delaware  – Nearly a month after Saddam Hussein’s capture, American war dead from Iraq (news – web sites) continue to arrive with somber regularity at the wind-swept Air Force base in Delaware that is home to the world’s largest mortuary.

The remains of the fallen, wrapped in body bags and encased in ice-laden metal transfer cases, descend from the sky aboard gray military planes or white civilian Boeing 747s. They are met at the airstrip by an honor guard, chaplain and small motorcade of blue vans.

The chaplain prays while the honor guard drapes a flag over each coffin and escorts it to the vans, which ferry the dead on a two-mile trek to the 70,000-square-foot Dover Air Force Base Port Mortuary.
There, at the U.S. military’s only stateside mortuary, the remains are identified, autopsied, embalmed, clothed in dress uniforms, placed in coffins and shipped to grieving relatives in the company of military escorts.

The bodies of nine soldiers who died aboard an Army Black Hawk helicopter that crashed near Falluja on Thursday were expected to arrive this weekend.

“That will put us over 500 for Iraq,” said Karen Giles, an Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel who heads a permanent eight-member staff supplemented by FBI fingerprint experts, pathologists and other specialists.

“We’ll probably have 50 or 60 people working here over the weekend,” Giles said.

According to Pentagon statistics released on Friday, 494 military personnel have died in Iraq. The mortuary also handles U.S. civilian dead, including contractors.

Mortuary services began at Dover in 1955. But their current home, a facility built with $30 million allocated after the September 11, 2001, attacks, opened in October with an enhanced capacity to house hundreds of bodies.

The mortuary has been empty only twice since U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March. “The last time was in October,” Giles told Reuters during a tour of the facility.

Saddam Hussein’s capture on December 13, 2003, raised hopes that attacks on U.S. forces would ebb as American authorities pursued new intelligence leads and stepped up counterinsurgency tactics.

But the pace of casualties has not changed despite apparent U.S. success at reducing daily attacks, policy experts say.

Thirty Americans have died in hostile action during the 27 days between Saddam’s capture and Friday, according to a Pentagon official. In comparison, 41 died in hostilities the month before Saddam’s capture, from November 13, 2003 through December 13, 2003.
“Since the mid-summer time period, we’ve seen a fairly steady pace of around 30 to 40 Americans killed per month, and I don’t anticipate that number changing quickly,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.


In November, U.S. casualties in Iraq surpassed the number of Americans killed in the first three years of the Vietnam War, according to a Reuters analysis of Pentagon statistics.

For a time, growing casualties threatened President Bush’s public approval ratings as he prepared for re-election amid fears that Iraq could turn into a quagmire for American forces.

But Bush’s ratings surged after Saddam’s capture and have stayed aloft.

Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst James Carafano said casualties appear to have become less of an issue for the public and the media since Saddam’s capture.

“The American people will accept casualties as long as they see progress toward the setting up of a legitimate government in Iraq,” Carafano said.

“Look at the headlines. Casualties were on page one every day. Now they’re drifting back to page four or page five.”

Back at Dover Air Force Base, the media are not allowed to see silver caskets arrive on the tarmac because of a Pentagon blackout first implemented in 1991 under Bush’s father, former President George Bush. It was reissued in March.

Pentagon officials say the policy is meant to protect the wishes and privacy of the soldiers’ families.

But policy experts say military officials are also driven by fear that news images of American casualties — at Dover or in Iraq — will erode public support for U.S. policy.

“The general assumption is that if people see the casualty visually, they will not any longer support the war,” said retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, a vocal critic of the Bush administration.

“The fear of images is a left-over Vietnam thing. However, the notion of controlling them is a modern thing.”

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