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Posted by on Feb 17, 2009 in War | 8 comments

Honor Our Returning Heroes: Follow-Up


A piece I wrote last week, “Mr. Obama: Please Honor Our Returning Heroes,” generated a lot of discussion and some controversy.

The piece was about the policy that has been in effect since 1991 and which, with a couple of exceptions, has effectively hidden from the American public the arrival of our fallen heroes at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

This morning, in “Pentagon Rethinks Photo Ban on Coffins Bearing War Dead,” the Washington Post visits the issue and reports on similar feelings as those expressed by my readers, but this time spoken by family members of the fallen.

For example,

“I would have loved to see them fly my son back in and give him a full salute,” said Janice Chance of Owings Mills, Md., whose son, Marine Capt. Jesse Melton III, was killed Sept. 9 in Afghanistan’s Parwan province. She said she is in favor of media coverage of the return ceremony.

“As long as it is done in good taste, and they are showing that the people here in the United States are welcoming them back and saying job well done, that is what I would like to see,” she said.


John Clodfelter lost his son, Hull Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Kenneth Clodfelter, in the Cole attack and supports lifting the ban. “When our son’s remains were returned up at Dover, there were several caskets that came off the plane, and you couldn’t tell which was Kenneth and which one was not Kenneth,” he said. As for whether news personnel should be allowed to cover the transfer, he said, “I don’t have a problem with it myself, as long as they are at a respectable distance.”

Clodfelter said he did not believe such coverage would spur antiwar sentiment among Americans. “If anything, I would hope that they would go ahead and feel sympathy for the families,” he said. “The people really need to understand that, hey, lives are being lost for you, to be able to get these people that are trying to kill our loved ones. The American military does so much for us, it’s unreal, and people really do not appreciate it at all.”

Other family members, however, strongly disagreed, saying they felt media coverage would allow their lost loved ones to be politically exploited:

This is very much Democratically driven to make it available to the public so they can publicize the negative side of the war and show the American public there is a high cost to be paid here,” said Cal Peters, whose stepson, Marine Capt. Garret Lawton, died Aug. 4 in Afghanistan. “I think this is the ultimate disrespect.

According to the Post, “A majority of Americans favor allowing the public to see pictures of the military honor guard receiving the war dead at Dover, with about 60 percent responding positively and a third answering negatively in polls posing the question in 1991 and 2004.”

President Obama is considering lifting the ban on photographs and videos at Dover and, according to the Post, “Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates expects a review of the issue back within days…and is seeking ‘a way to better balance an individual family’s privacy concerns with the right of the American people to honor these fallen heroes’ and ‘is disposed, leaning, tilting towards trying to do more, if possible’ to allow coverage of the ceremony.”

The Post also notes that changing the policy would carry some risk for Obama, considering that he may be sending “tens of thousands of fresh troops [to Afghanistan], increasing the likelihood of combat deaths that could produce photographs of numerous coffins arriving at one time at Dover, the sole U.S. port of entry for the remains.”

I stick to the plea I made to the President in my previous post:

Mr. President, the American people understand that you may have to send more of our brave troops to Afghanistan and elsewhere, and that, tragically, some of them may return in flag-draped coffins through Dover Air Force Base.

But, if your promises about change, transparency, and leveling with the American people are sincere, you must let the American people honor its fallen heroes when they first reach American soil. This can and should be done consistent with every respect and due considerations for the hardship, grief, privacy, etc. of the surviving family members, and regardless of future political considerations.

Finally, in Newsweek’s “A Matter of Honor,” John Barry discusses similar issues and has the following suggestion:

Is there a better way to honor their privacy and meet their needs while making sure the public is reminded of the price of war? Canada may have an answer. The more than 100 Canadian soldiers who have fallen in combat in Afghanistan have been flown to Trenton air base, then driven 107 miles to the mortuary in Toronto. A stretch of Canada’s Highway 401 has become known as the Highway of Heroes. When the military hearse drives down it, all other traffic is blocked; police and fire trucks, lights flashing, line each overpass, and hundreds of Canadians, flags in hand, wait along the highway. Perhaps fallen American soldiers could arrive at Andrews Air Force Base— with the sort of quiet, dignified ceremony I chanced to witness—and then be carried by hearse (anonymously; no family need be present) to the mortuary at Dover, 102 miles away by road and highway. The route could pass by the White House.

Photo: U.S. Air Force–Via Reuters