Return of U.S. war dead kept solemn, secret – Wed December 31, 2003


By Gregg Zoroya
Courtesy of USA TODAY

The most touching moment of a slain soldier's homecoming, say those who witness it, is when the chaplain steps forward to pray.

Standing over a flag-draped coffin that arrived from Iraq this month, Air Force Chaplain Robert Cannon chose this invocation: “We pray and long for the day when war will be no more.”

An honor guard removed the aluminum “transfer case” containing the body from the aircraft, as other military officers present to receive the slain servicemember snapped salutes. The honor guard process here at Dover – repeated hundreds of times since the Iraq war began – is dignified and reverent. And it's carried out in secret, off-limits to the media.

This wasn't always the case. Photographs and film footage of caskets coming home from battlefields have been a stark reminder for Americans of the toll of war. During the Vietnam War, the image of caskets arriving at Dover became a staple of the nightly news. The phrase “Dover Test” later came to signify public tolerance, or lack of it, for mounting war casualties.

Since 1991, the media have been banned from covering the arrival of remains at Dover. The air base houses the military's largest mortuary, where bodies are prepared for burial before they are sent to the families' hometowns.

In March, before the Iraq war began, the Pentagon clamped down on similar coverage from military installations around the world, such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany or in Afghanistan.  “The prohibition includes … the movement of remains at any point,” the Pentagon guidelines say.

The result is that images of caskets being returned to U.S. soil are not shown to the American public. This policy contrasts with Italy's national display of grief last month when 19 of that country's troops died in an Iraq suicide bombing and received a state funeral through the streets of Rome.

There have been exceptions to the media ban at Dover. In February, NASA released photos of the caskets carrying remains of the seven astronauts killed in the Columbia shuttle explosion. When fighting began in Afghanistan in 2001, reporters were allowed to cover the honor guard ritual at Ramstein in Germany.

Guarding families' feelings

Government spokesmen say the change in March to extend the media ban to all military installations was to be sensitive to the families of those killed in Iraq. “We respect and protect their privacy diligently,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says. “We're going to do everything in our power to ensure reverence for their fallen loved one.”

Still, presidential historians say wanting to control the public image of war is nothing new for presidents or military leaders. “They don't want the public to see what the great difficulties are,” says Boston University historian Robert Dallek, author of biographies on John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. “They're fearful that the public is turning against the war because it's frustrated by the losses of blood and treasure, in this case Iraq and earlier in Vietnam.”

But the ban on pictures from Dover and other military facilities does not extend to recovering the remains of troops killed in previous wars. Reporters can cover the arrival of caskets containing men who died in Vietnam or Korea as they arrive at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. Last month, the Defense Department released a photo of a coffin containing a Korean War casualty being carried off an aircraft by an honor guard at Hickam. The image is almost identical to what takes place at Dover.

Family sensitivities are less a factor at Hickam. “That's not really an issue in these cases, because the families have, unfortunately, had to live with the uncertainty of the missing loved ones for decades,” says Larry Greer, spokesman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which brings home those missing from prior conflicts.

Some critics, even in the military, say bringing home lost troops from past wars is seen as good news, while bringing home the dead from Iraq is bad news.

President Bush also hasn't attended funerals or special ceremonies for the military men or women killed in Iraq.

Private meetings

Bush's public image has been with participants of the war, most dramatically on Thanksgiving when he secretly flew to Baghdad to surprise soldiers and honor their service. On three occasions – in April, September and November – he met privately with families of soldiers and Marines killed in Iraq. He has visited military hospitals three times to meet with wounded servicemembers.

“There will certainly be more events in the future to honor those who have fallen and express our deepest gratitude,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said this month.

“The president approaches it from a number of ways, from sending letters to the families (and) meeting the families of fallen soldiers, to reminding the American people on a regular basis that men and women in the military made the ultimate sacrifice,” he says.

Joyce Raezer of the National Military Family Association, an advocacy group, said her organization is in regular contact with these families, and they appreciate the administration's concerns about protecting their privacy.

“Most families want that privacy at these very crucial times. But they want some other way for the national leader to acknowledge their sacrifice,” she says. “They're looking for more of that public statement.”

Past presidents, including Bush's father, have attended special memorial services, but none for U.S. troops killed during a war.

The elder President Bush spoke at a memorial for 47 sailors killed in a peacetime explosion aboard the USS Iowa in 1989. “I can only offer you the gratitude of a nation,” he said at the ceremony.

President Reagan spoke at a memorial for sailors of the USS Stark killed during a misguided Israeli air attack in 1987, for 241 Marines who died in Beirut and for other casualties in Grenada. “We grieve along with the families,” he said at the Beirut-Grenada memorial.

President Clinton went to Dover in 1996 for the return of 33 Americans, including Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, killed in a Croatia air crash. He did the same at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in 1998 for Americans killed in a Nairobi terrorist bombing.

President Carter attended funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, including a combined service for eight military personnel who died in the failed hostage rescue attempt in Iran in 1980. “It's hard to accept the loss of these brave young men at the peak of their life and career,” he said in the eulogy.

Bush's absence at funerals or memorials follows a custom of the Vietnam War. Researchers at the Kennedy and Johnson libraries and archivists of President Nixon's records found no evidence that those presidents attended ceremonies or funerals for U.S. troops killed in war.

Presidential historian Doug Brinkley says it is extremely difficult for a president to make a dramatic gesture of public mourning during a war.

“It is the right thing to do,” Brinkley says. “But there is also something called political survival.”


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