Few Americans see caskets come home

DOVER, Del. - If Lupita Rubio's husband died in Iraq, she'd want to see his remains returned to nearby Dover Air Force Base, marked with a ceremony seen by all.

"I would like for him to get the recognition he deserves," said Rubio, 38, while eating lunch at the Corner Eatery with her husband, a load- master on a C-5 military cargo plane.

Jim Sullivan, 43, a cartographer and former Marine, has a different view - one that seems pervasive in a city with deep military roots.

"I don't need to see the caskets coming off" a plane, he said outside the post office downtown. "I grew up watching those images with Vietnam. I don't think it's decent for the families."

As the war in Iraq nears the 12-month mark, Dover Air Force Base is again fulfilling one of its most solemn duties: accepting the flag-draped remains of U.S. soldiers killed overseas and, after post-mortem examinations, releasing them to families for burial. So far, the base mortuary has handled the remains of about 550 soldiers, civilians and contractors who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

None of this happens in public view. A Defense Department edict issued in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war keeps reporters and television cameras away from the somber ceremony known as "dignified transfer" that unfolds as the remains are taken off the planes.

During the Vietnam War, images of caskets by the hundreds being unloaded at Dover had a powerful impact on the American public. The images evolved into a kind of political shorthand: Could the nation's resolve survive the "Dover test"?

The media blackout enables the military and policymakers in Washington to sidestep the question. A White House spokesman declined to comment on the policy.

Since the ban was initiated more than a decade ago, there have been few exceptions. One was the return of 17 sailors killed in the suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, in October 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration.

Pros and cons

The Defense Department says the policy is intended to respect the privacy of families who have lost loved ones. Skeptics, including some congressional leaders, say the Bush administration benefits from a policy that keeps images of mounting American casualties to a minimum.

Critics also say there haven't been enough public displays commemorating those who lost their lives. England and Italy, U.S. allies in Iraq, have held state ceremonies for those who died there, allowing news media to broadcast the events.

"I think these are images that are absolutely important to the American people in a democracy, to be able to make up their minds about the rightness or wrongness of a war policy," said Ralph Begleiter, a journalist in residence at the University of Delaware and a former CNN reporter. "It can't just be left to the briefings at the Pentagon or embedded journalists."

Lt. Col. Jon Anderson, chief of public affairs at Dover air base, emphasized that the policy is in place out of respect for victims' families. He's aware of the criticism that the military waits for the cover of darkness to fly in the remains, but said that's not the way it happens.

"Remains come in at all times of the day. We get them here as soon as possible," Anderson said during a recent tour of the mortuary with a reporter.

Still, in Dover, from its red-brick downtown to the American Legion hall near the base, from local bars to hotel lobbies, the issue is tinged with nuances. Residents know the cargo planes that rumble overhead at all hours may be carrying the remains of someone's son or daughter, husband or wife, who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many in the community are military veterans - or are connected to civilians or soldiers who work on the base.

Take the mayor, James L. Hutchison, who served in the National Guard for six years. He wholeheartedly supports the media ban.

"I think it's extremely important to respect the victims and their families," he said. "I realize there's a story for [the media] to tell, but you need to understand something about this community: We are a military community, and we are a very close-knit community. We have many people who never leave this city upon finishing their service because they love it so much."

John Nelson, 60, who served in the Air Force for 22 years, agrees with the blackout. He says he probably helped return the remains of thousands to Dover during the Vietnam War.

"It was so commonplace it was pathetic," Nelson said at the American Legion hall. The ceremony is "a very private thing," he added, and media access "would compromise the security of the base."

But some in town say the dead soldiers' arrival at Dover - the first time the remains touch American soil upon their return from overseas - should be marked by a ceremony that can be witnessed by all. Their sacrifice for their country is too great to go unnoticed, several said.

"I disagree with the blackout," said Calvin Bryant, a retired Air Force maintenance supervisor who spent eight years at the base. "We have over 500 American citizens who've died. ... I think the public needs to see a little bit more than what they're seeing now."

Kenn Lucas, who spent four years in the Air Force in the 1950s, also believes in more access. "We need to do more here; we need to show more here," he said outside the post office downtown. "We know what's going on over there. We need to know what's happening here."

At the Best Western Hotel near the base, desk clerk Charles Roach, 46, has a different reason for opposing the ban. Roach, who served in the Marines for three years in the late 1970s, recalls the images of remains being returned to Dover during the Vietnam War but says they stirred in him a different response.

"It probably made me more patriotic than anything," said Roach, who enlisted after graduating from high school.

Apart from Dover and other military installations, the Defense Department's media policy is less restrictive. Funerals at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, for example, have been open to the news media if the soldier's kin give permission.

'So much more real'

The issue was discussed in an essay this month in U.S. News and World Report written by Jonathan W. Evans, an Army helicopter pilot who regularly flies an Army honor guard into Dover to participate in the dignified transfer.

Evans, who is based in Virginia, said he feels torn about the media access policy. He believes it is important for the American public to understand that "these are people's lives," but also worries about a 24-hour news media constantly replaying the images to the point where the public became desensitized to them.

"What's really hard to wrap your head around is that there's some mother grieving right now," Evans said. "You need to pay respect to the fact that these aren't just five caskets coming home tonight. They're so much more real than that."

Some families who lost a relative overseas disagree with the blackout policy.

"I would've wanted it shown. I would've wanted people to know," said John Gifford, 53, whose 30-year-old son Jonathan, a private in the Marines, was killed March 23 in what he believes was a friendly fire incident in Iraq. An official report on his son's death is pending, he said.

"They should be able to know the truth. There's been too many things covered up since I can remember," said Gifford, who served in the Army for four years, including one in Vietnam.

He said he thinks something better should be done to commemorate those who died.

Carolyn Hutchings, whose son, Marine Pvt. Nolen Ryan Hutchings, 20, was killed the same day and in the same area as Gifford, also was critical of the policy of denying media coverage at Dover.

"That's crap. I'm sorry, that's crap," she said of the government's desire to protect families' privacy. "Everybody knew my son had died," she said. "Why not acknowledge it? We already knew. ... Why not acknowledge it? He died for his country."

She said local news media covered her son's arrival at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina, but public ceremonies and national coverage of the totality of the deaths is lacking.

"That's all you hear on TV, it's a count," said Hutchings, her voice quavering. "It's nothing but a count."

She said she received a "typed, generic letter" of condolence from President Bush.

"I'm sure everybody got the same one," Hutchings said. "I'm not impressed at all."

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.