By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, DEL. -- When the first Bush administration banned the media from covering the arrival of the fallen at Dover Air Force Base during the Persian Gulf War nearly 20 years ago, the stated reason was to protect the families' privacy.
But in the six months since the controversial ban was lifted and 258 families were allowed to choose whether they wanted the media present, 60 percent said yes, according to the military.
In August, the Pentagon quietly amended the policy so that families were given a third option for coverage. Now they can have military camera crews cover the short, solemn ceremony at Dover, known as a dignified transfer, while barring professional news reporters. Fifteen percent more families have chosen this option, meaning that about 75 percent of all arrivals of the country's war dead are covered in some fashion.
But just because families consent to coverage doesn't mean news organizations are always interested. After First Amendment advocates fought for the right to document the arrival of the flag-draped metal caskets, dubbed "transfer cases" by the military, there are often just a handful of journalists on hand. More than a third of all ceremonies open to the media during the first six months were covered by a single outlet: the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the military, which had feared from the beginning that families who said yes to media coverage would be disappointed by the turnout, has provided its own crews to cover those events approved by the family and posts the images on the Web. As a result, the Defense Department has become one of the main distributors of the images of the fallen.
It's a development that troubles free speech advocates, who say the media, not the military, should capture the images the public sees.
"Taking pictures of the returning casualties to Dover is a measure of the human cost of war," said Ralph Begleiter, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware who with the Natonal Security Archive successfully sued the Pentagon in 2004 to release its images of the fallen arriving at Dover. "Do you want the government ultimately to have control over what we see or not see? Or do you want independent observers, an independent press or media, relaying those images?"Free speech vs. privacy
The arrival of war dead at Dover has long pitted free speech advocates against the government, which had been accused of using the ban to hide the horror of war from the public -- especially as the casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan began to climb. In 2004, Vice President Biden, then a U.S. senator from Delaware, said, "The idea that they are essentially snuck back into the country under the cover of night so no one can see that their casket has arrived, I just think is wrong."
This year, the Obama administration sought a middle ground. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates lifted the ban but said families should decide whether the media cover the homecomings of the fallen: "We ought not presume to make that decision in their place."
The first family offered a choice under the new policy was that of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers of Hopewell, Va., who was killed in Afghanistan on April 4. His wife approved coverage because she "wanted the world to see what was going on over there, to let the world see that it is bodies coming back," Eddie Myers, Phillip Myers's father, told The Post at the time.
When Army Spec. Daniel P. Drevnick was killed in Iraq in July, his father approved coverage for the same reason. Still, Ken Drevnick said he was glad the media were forbidden from taking pictures of family members, who stand behind a large bus that shields them from the media stationed just a few feet away.
"I think that's a good thing," Drevnick, of Woodbury, Minn., said, "because it was within 48 hours of me finding out that my son had been killed, and I was in no position to talk to the media."
But not all families say yes to the media -- or think the ban should have been lifted. Brian Wise, executive director of Families United for Our Troops, an advocacy organization, said media coverage is an unwelcome intrusion that "is like bringing a camera into a funeral home."
Shortly after Daryl Burrow of Laurel was notified that her son, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dennis Burrow, 23, had been killed in Afghanistan, she refused news coverage, she said, because she feared the media would turn her son's homecoming into a "spectacle." Welcoming him home, she said, "was something we wanted to do in private."Few media frenzies
Since the ban was lifted, media coverage at Dover has fluctuated. On April 5, 35 news organizations crammed together on the runway to witness Myers's arrival home. And after five soldiers were allegedly killed by an Army sergeant at a mental health clinic in Iraq, 22 media crews descended on Dover on May 13.
So Gloria Crothers of Edgewood, Md., was a little taken aback when just two news crews appeared for the arrival of her son, Army Sgt. Michael Heede, and another soldier from Maryland. She wasn't so much disappointed as surprised, she said. "I was told there could be quite a few" news crews.
But a few is the norm, said Maj. Carl Grusnick, an Air Force spokesman. Often the only professional journalist is a lone Associated Press photographer.
"The feeling is that somewhere there is a home town, a family, a newspaper for whom the homecoming of the soldier is very important news," said Paul Colford, an AP spokesman. "So we have made the commitment to covering each and every one of those at Dover."
Along with the AP, the military has sent a photographer and videographer to every arrival approved for coverage by families since the ban was lifted. The Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover gives a DVD of the ceremony to each family, which officials say helps in the healing process.
Some families said they agreed to media coverage just so they could get the DVD, which is why the military created the option of Defense Department-only coverage. Before the change in policy, about 70 percent of families approved general media coverage. Afterward, families said yes to professional media 60 percent of the time.
The military also posts a photograph of every ceremony approved for coverage on the Air Force's Mortuary Affairs Web site, which can be downloaded by anyone.
"Many small publications around the country regularly take advantage of this free information as a basis for their localized stories," Grusnick said.
Since the media ban was lifted, the military also started paying for families to travel to Dover to welcome their loved ones home. More than 70 percent of families have made the trip.
That's what mattered most to Shane Wilhelm of Plymouth, Ohio: being there for the quiet white-gloved military rite. Wilhelm said it made him feel proud of his 19-year-old son, Army Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm, and of his country.
"It was representative of the United States, that's the way I viewed it," he said. "It shook me to the bone, but it made me feel proud instead of having all that grief. All these people are here all because of my son."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.