What the Family Would Let You See, the Pentagon Obstructs

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, April 24, 2008

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.

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. Among those unlikely to forget the war: 6-year-old Gladys and 3-year-old Tatianna. The rest of the nation, if it remembers Hall at all, will remember him as the 4,011th American service member to die in Iraq, give or take, and the 419th to be buried at Arlington. Gladys and Tatianna will remember him as Dad.

The two girls were there in Section 60 yesterday beside grave 8,672 — or at least it appeared that they were from a distance. Journalists were held 50 yards from the service, separated from the mourning party by six or seven rows of graves, and staring into the sun and penned in by a yellow rope. Photographers and reporters pleaded with Arlington officials.

“There will be a yellow rope in the face of the next of kin,” protested one photographer with a large telephoto lens.

“This is the best shot you're going to get,” a man from the cemetery replied.

“We're not going to be able to hear a thing,” a reporter argued.

“Mm-hmm,” an Arlington official answered.

The distance made it impossible to hear the words of Chaplain Ron Nordan, who, an official news release said, was leading the service. Even a reporter who stood surreptitiously just behind the mourners could make out only the familiar strains of the Lord's Prayer. Whatever Chaplain Nordan had to say about Hall's valor and sacrifice were lost to the drone of airplanes leaving National Airport.

It had the feel of a throwback to Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, when the military cracked down on photographs of flag-draped caskets returning home from the war. Rumsfeld himself was exposed for failing to sign by hand the condolence letters he sent to the next of kin. His successor, Robert Gates, has brought some glasnost to the Pentagon, but the military funerals remain tightly controlled. Even when families approve media coverage for a funeral, the journalists are held at a distance for the pageantry — the caisson, the band, the firing party, “Taps,” the presenting of the flag — then whisked away when the service itself begins.

Nor does the blocking of funeral coverage seem to be the work of overzealous bureaucrats. Gina Gray, Arlington's new public affairs director, pushed vigorously to allow the journalists more access to the service yesterday — but she was apparently shot down by other cemetery officials.

Media whining? Perhaps. But the de facto ban on media at Arlington funerals fits neatly with an effort by the administration to sanitize the war in Iraq. That, in turn, has contributed to a public boredom with the war. A Pew Research Center poll earlier this month found that 14 percent of Americans considered Iraq the news story of most interest — less than half the 32 percent hooked on the presidential campaign and barely more than the 11 percent hooked on the raid of a polygamist compound in Texas.

On March 29, a week before the raid on the polygamists' ranch, William G. Hall was riding from his quarters to the place in Fallujah where he was training Iraqi troops when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. He was taken into surgery, but he died from his injuries. The Marines awarded him a posthumous promotion from major to lieutenant colonel.

Newspapers in Seattle, where Hall had lived, printed an e-mail the fallen fighter had sent his family two days before his death.

“I am sure the first question in each of your minds is my safety, and I am happy to tell you that I'm safe and doing well,” he wrote, giving his family a hopeful picture of events in Iraq. “I know most of what you hear on the news about Iraq is not usually good news and that so many are dying over here,” the e-mail said. “That is true to an extent but it does not paint the total picture, and violence is not everywhere throughout the country. So please don't associate what you see on the news with all of Iraq.

“Love you and miss you,” he wrote. “I'll write again soon.”

Except, of course, that he didn't. And yesterday, his family walked slowly behind the horse-drawn caisson to section 60. In the front row of mourners, one young girl trudged along, clinging to a grown-up's hand; another child found a ride on an adult's shoulders.

It was a moving scene — and one the Pentagon shouldn't try to hide from the American public.

Webmaster Note: The following e-mail message was sent to Mr. Milbank in response to the above article:

“Mr. Milbank, your article suggests that the “powers that be” want to keep the press from accurately reporting the details of funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.  This is absurd and patently not true.

“Sadly, I have personally attended any number of funeral services for casualties of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, as well as for other service personnel, both well known and not so well known, and it has always been the case that the press, whether permitted to attend by families or not, have been kept at a respectable distance from the actual interment ceremonies.  It seems to me only reasonable that the families and friends of the deceased would not want photographers or television cameras thrust into their faces while they are bidding a final farewell to their loved ones.  I am sure that you would agree that the final good-bye to a loved one is one of the most emotional events in a persons life and that there should be a measure of privacy at a time such as that.

“Whether a reporter was able to hear the words of a chaplain, because of either distance or because of the noise of airplanes departing from the nearby airport, is not a valid argument for having “outsiders” mingling among the mourners at the graveside.

“I firmly do not believe that this is an attempt to “hide” the fact that a hero from one of these campaigns is being laid to rest in the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, or any other cemetery in our Nation, but rather a policy intended to provide the families with a bit of privacy as I indicated above.

“We all know what war is an ugly business and we all mourn each and every American man and woman who has lost their life in the cause of freedom.  This being said, that does not mean that we want close up photos and video of their last moments with their loved ones.

“While I can understand how you could draw the conclusions that you did, I would urge you to re-think your views on this matter.

“Regards, Michael Patterson.”

No reply to this message has been received.

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