Few Americans see caskets come home

Dover: A news media blackout instituted to ensure privacy for soldiers' families also protects policymakers as war casualties mount.

February 17, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DOVER, Del. - If Lupita Rubio's husband died in Iraq, she'd want to see his remains returned to nearby Dover Air Force Base, marked with a ceremony seen by all.

"I would like for him to get the recognition he deserves," said Rubio, 38, while eating lunch at the Corner Eatery with her husband, a load- master on a C-5 military cargo plane.

Jim Sullivan, 43, a cartographer and former Marine, has a different view - one that seems pervasive in a city with deep military roots.

"I don't need to see the caskets coming off" a plane, he said outside the post office downtown. "I grew up watching those images with Vietnam. I don't think it's decent for the families."

As the war in Iraq nears the 12-month mark, Dover Air Force Base is again fulfilling one of its most solemn duties: accepting the flag-draped remains of U.S. soldiers killed overseas and, after post-mortem examinations, releasing them to families for burial. So far, the base mortuary has handled the remains of about 550 soldiers, civilians and contractors who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

None of this happens in public view. A Defense Department edict issued in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war keeps reporters and television cameras away from the somber ceremony known as "dignified transfer" that unfolds as the remains are taken off the planes.

During the Vietnam War, images of caskets by the hundreds being unloaded at Dover had a powerful impact on the American public. The images evolved into a kind of political shorthand: Could the nation's resolve survive the "Dover test"?

The media blackout enables the military and policymakers in Washington to sidestep the question. A White House spokesman declined to comment on the policy.

Since the ban was initiated more than a decade ago, there have been few exceptions. One was the return of 17 sailors killed in the suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, in October 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration.

Pros and cons

The Defense Department says the policy is intended to respect the privacy of families who have lost loved ones. Skeptics, including some congressional leaders, say the Bush administration benefits from a policy that keeps images of mounting American casualties to a minimum.

Critics also say there haven't been enough public displays commemorating those who lost their lives. England and Italy, U.S. allies in Iraq, have held state ceremonies for those who died there, allowing news media to broadcast the events.

"I think these are images that are absolutely important to the American people in a democracy, to be able to make up their minds about the rightness or wrongness of a war policy," said Ralph Begleiter, a journalist in residence at the University of Delaware and a former CNN reporter. "It can't just be left to the briefings at the Pentagon or embedded journalists."

Lt. Col. Jon Anderson, chief of public affairs at Dover air base, emphasized that the policy is in place out of respect for victims' families. He's aware of the criticism that the military waits for the cover of darkness to fly in the remains, but said that's not the way it happens.

"Remains come in at all times of the day. We get them here as soon as possible," Anderson said during a recent tour of the mortuary with a reporter.

Still, in Dover, from its red-brick downtown to the American Legion hall near the base, from local bars to hotel lobbies, the issue is tinged with nuances. Residents know the cargo planes that rumble overhead at all hours may be carrying the remains of someone's son or daughter, husband or wife, who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many in the community are military veterans - or are connected to civilians or soldiers who work on the base.

Take the mayor, James L. Hutchison, who served in the National Guard for six years. He wholeheartedly supports the media ban.

"I think it's extremely important to respect the victims and their families," he said. "I realize there's a story for [the media] to tell, but you need to understand something about this community: We are a military community, and we are a very close-knit community. We have many people who never leave this city upon finishing their service because they love it so much."

John Nelson, 60, who served in the Air Force for 22 years, agrees with the blackout. He says he probably helped return the remains of thousands to Dover during the Vietnam War.

"It was so commonplace it was pathetic," Nelson said at the American Legion hall. The ceremony is "a very private thing," he added, and media access "would compromise the security of the base."

But some in town say the dead soldiers' arrival at Dover - the first time the remains touch American soil upon their return from overseas - should be marked by a ceremony that can be witnessed by all. Their sacrifice for their country is too great to go unnoticed, several said.

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