The Defense Department will allow the families of U.S. troops and others killed in Iraq to watch as their loved ones' caskets are removed from military transport planes at Dover Air Force Base, according to a little-noticed memo issued last month.
In clarifying its policy, the Pentagon said it will allow service members' next of kin or a "designated representative" to attend as remains are transferred from planes to vehicles that are to carry them to the base mortuary, where they are prepared before being sent to local funeral homes.
The department supplies an honor guard to attend what it calls a "dignified transfer" of the bodies, an often-brief event that is an important emotional marker for some military families.
But until the Pentagon's May 26 memo was issued, it was not clear to some families whether they were allowed to watch the transfer.
Sue Niederer of Pennington, N.J., whose son, Army 2nd Lt. Seth Dvorin, 24, was killed in February, said she was told she could not watch the transfer. "What they said to me was: 'If you want to go to the base, you're going to stand outside like everybody else. You will not be permitted under any circumstances to actually meet the plane,' " she said. "I wanted to see my son hit American soil. I wanted to kiss my son's casket. I wanted to go welcome him back to the States."
Michael Berg of West Chester, Pa., whose son Nicholas, an American contractor working in Iraq, was beheaded in May, said he also was denied access to the base, despite a personal plea from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. At a May 12 committee hearing, the senator asked Rumsfeld if the Pentagon would allow Berg to see the coffin transfer. "Be happy to," Rumsfeld said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
A spokeswoman for the Delaware air base said that before the recent memo, families were prohibited from watching the repatriations.
But Charles Abell, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said that while the Pentagon does not encourage families to visit Dover, it has never barred them. He said the May 26 memo puts existing policy in writing.
"We've never had a policy codified or in practice that denied families the ability to go to Dover," he said. "I know of no instances in which a family has been turned away."
The department will not allow anyone attending the transfer to photograph or make any other kind of visual recording of the proceedings. It also continues to ban members of the news media from covering the transfers.
The department's policy applies to relatives and representatives of service members, civilian employees of the Defense Department, contractors and others whose remains are brought to Dover.
The Pentagon memo comes after months of wrangling between the Bush administration and Democratic lawmakers who contended that restrictions on attending the transfers were designed to hide the human cost the of war in Iraq. Much of the debate has focused on the decision to enforce a long-standing government rule that bars reporters from Dover.
President George H.W. Bush -- whose image shared a split television screen with images of service members' caskets -- issued an executive order in 1991 making that change. But the rule was only intermittently enforced before the war in Iraq.
In March 2003, just before the U.S. invasion, the administration said it would not allow media coverage of the dead troops' return. Earlier this week, the Senate backed the administration's ban when it rejected, 54 to 39, a Democratic proposal that would have guaranteed media access to Dover.
The policy on families attending the transfers, however, has been more obscure. The Pentagon memo was largely prompted by an informal proposal by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that would have guaranteed families access to the base. The Pentagon opposed the senator's proposal, mostly for logistical reasons. But it eventually agreed to accept Kennedy's approach if he withdrew his proposal, which he did.
"Kennedy's staff identified a shortcoming to us, and we fixed it," Abell said. "We appreciate that."
But that does not mean the department is recommending that families travel to Dover.
"The uncertainty of travel arrangements from the location of the casualty, the possible length of the positive identification process and the absence of facilities to enable the viewing of remains make Dover Air Force Base the least desirable place for family members to meet their loved one's remains," the memo says.
"The Armed Forces' tradition of support to families and dignified handling of fallen comrades is best represented when the support is provided in the local area where the next-of-kin reside or where the remains will be laid to rest," the memo says.
The memo also says that families will not be allowed to view the actual remains and will not be reimbursed for trip expenses.
"I don't think that a family ought to go through the expense and the emotional angst to go to Dover to watch that airplane arrive, only to be disappointed that that's all they get to do," Abell said. "But should a family come to Dover on their own volition, they won't be turned away."
Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.