I am and have been in favor of publicly honoring our fallen heroes when they touch American soil for the last time at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. My personal motto is “Nothing to hide here. Everything to Honor.”
A lot of controversy and apprehension had surrounded this issue.
Finally, on February 26, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a policy consistent with what we presently have at Arlington National Cemetery which allows the family to decide whether to allow media coverage.
On April 5, the Defense Department implemented the policy. The new policy permits the media to attend “dignified transfer” ceremonies with permission from the families and to pay the expenses of up to three relatives of a fallen hero to travel to Dover to watch their loved one come back home.
There was still apprehension and criticism on the part of many organizations and individuals, fearing that media access and publicity would diminish the solemnity and dignity of the occasion.
In “A Fallen Hero Returns for All to See and Honor,” I wrote how those concerns were tested when the first fallen hero was welcomed home publicly under the new policy.
The fallen hero was Air Force Staff Sergeant Phillip A. Myers who was killed by a makeshift bomb in Afghanistan.
The fallen hero’s family was there to welcome him home, along with about two dozen members of the media.
The ceremony was somber, solemn and dignified. It was broadcast on most networks. I watched it. It was moving. It was appropriate.
However, my opinion doesn’t matter. What matters is the opinion, the reaction and the acceptance of this new policy by family members of the fallen heroes.
The Air Force Times has a story today that speaks to that.
The report starts as follows:
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — Susan Velloza stood on the flight line here less than 36 hours after she found out two Iraqi soldiers shot and killed her only child.
She cried as she and her husband watched six soldiers carry their son’s body off a 747 commercial jet.
She hardly remembers the red-eye flight she and her husband took from their California home to Philadelphia International Airport. Or the 77-mile drive through rural Delaware to Dover, home of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center.
Four months later, though, she has no regrets. She had to see her son, Staff Sgt. Jake Velloza, returned to the country he died to defend.
“We needed to be there,” Velloza said. “I needed to bring my son back.”
The Times continues:
Since the policies took effect, mortuary affairs data show, the number of families traveling to Dover has increased from 5 percent to 72 percent — 141 of the 197 families who lost a service member between April 5 and Aug. 31 have made the trip.
Of those, nearly two-thirds let reporters and photographers watch the ceremony.
It should be noted that families always had the right to be at Dover when their heroes returned. However, they had to make their way to Dover on their own: “For many that wasn’t easy. The biggest challenges were money and time: A flight booked at the last minute is expensive, and many families couldn’t get to Dover quickly enough.”
The Times cites the story of the Duffys who lost their son, Army Sgt. Justin Duffy, in Baghdad to a roadside bomb. The Duffys chose not to travel to Dover, but they let reporters and photographers document their son’s return because, according to Joe Duffy, “we were told there would be distance between Justin’s casket and the media themselves, so we didn’t have a problem with it.”
The Duffys and many of the families let the media witness one of their most private, most emotional moments because, said Rose, the mortuary official, they have a “sense of pride” about what their son or daughter gave for this country.
“They just lost a hero, and they wanted the rest of the world to know the sacrifices they made,” Rose said.