Dover Base to Hold First Public Welcoming for Service Casualties Since '91

The lift of the media ban on homecomings of war casualties offers a personal look at the fallen -- and those who welcome them back to the United States. President Obama visited Dover Air Force Base on Oct. 29 to honor 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan.
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

The wind can whip cold across the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, freezing fingers that hold the flag-draped metal transfer case in which lie the remains of a fellow service member. You do not loosen your grip. You do not shuffle your feet. You do not grimace.

If you have to yawn, you do it through your nose. You swallow your coughs and sneezes, let itches go unscratched. Keep your mouth closed, eyes straight and the blinking to an absolute minimum.

Those are the rules.

Those are the rules when it's 4 a.m. and it's dark and there's no one around.

Those were the rules last night when the ritual of welcoming home the fallen was open to the public for the first time since President George H.W. Bush instituted a ban on news coverage in 1991.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers, 30, of Hopewell, Va., who was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday in the explosion of a makeshift bomb, became the first service member welcomed home publicly in 18 years. Myers, who was attached to the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron based in England, was awarded a Bronze Star last year for his service in Iraq, according to the Air Force.

Myers's wife and other relatives attended the 17-minute ceremony, which began shortly after 11 last night at the Air Force base. Except for the command "Present Arms," it was conducted in silence.

"It doesn't matter what the conditions are like -- cold, wet, sunny," said Sgt. James Rhett of the Army's Old Guard. "They're a fallen soldier, and they deserve the highest respect and honor we can give."

For years, the ritual of welcoming the war dead back to U.S. soil at Dover has been performed in private by the various services. Last night's was conducted by an Air Force team based at Dover. And now that the Obama administration has lifted the ban, the event was broadcast across the globe. Under the new policy, families of the deceased decide whether the arrival will be open to the public.

With the long-awaited green light yesterday, the soldiers from the Army's Old Guard who perform what's known as the "dignified transfer" could suddenly find themselves on center stage. In an interview last week, several Old Guard soldiers, said they were ready.

And whether the media is there doesn't matter, they said: What matters is that they honor the fallen by preserving the solemnity of the occasion with their quiet precision.

The worldwide attention "won't change anything we do," said Spec. Johnny Bowers, 26.

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