Friday, February 27, 2009

The Dover Ban - Why Everyone Still Gets It Wrong

Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the ban on media presence at the return of “transfer cases” containing the remains of US service personnel who have died overseas would be lifted. I offer my sincere appreciation for this proposed change in policy.

However, after studying the proposal (and the objections of groups such as Military Families United), I can’t help but be struck by how much misinformation exists about the return of our Soldier Dead.

First, “coffins” (as generally reported) are not coming back to the US. A coffin infers that the deceased is already identified and prepared for burial. Rather, the “transfer cases” containing the remains are nothing more than big ice chests.

(The picture of these transfer cases was taken by the author at the U.S. Army Morgue in Baghdad, Iraq)

Second, once the as yet not officially identified remains are received at Dover, they go through a meticulous identification process in a state-of-the-art facility that is the envy of the rest of the world. Military deaths are often a messy affair, and dedicated men and women work diligently to assure that each and every body part is associated with the appropriate service person who has given his or her life.

AFTER the remains are officially identified (Dr. Craig Mallak, Chief Medical Examiner for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, has stated that remains only have a tentative identification when they arrive at Dover), they are prepared for burial, which includes a full military dress uniform and the casket of the family’s choice.

What this means is that, at the time of arrival in the U.S., these fallen soldiers are the country’s unnamed emissaries who carry the nation’s sword and shield. As such, they belong to the country as a whole, not just to a particular family.

Therefore, to say that we leave the decision to the family about whether or not to have media present at the return of the dead gives a decision to a group that does not yet have an official claim on the dead.

Certainly, it doesn’t take much prescience to understand that, if we have a single death in Afghanistan AND a day later a plane shows up carrying these remains, it would be possible to say with confidence that a certain transfer case does, indeed, carry the remains of someone whose identity is clearly known.

And, if this fallen soldier’s family wants privacy from the beginning to the end, then there could be a potential conflict in satisfying this request.

To try to resolve any actual or potential conflicts in any situation, especially one in which the issues are subtle yet deep-rooted, it is necessary to have a thorough grasp of the theoretical basis of such issues.

In this case, that of allowing media presence at the repatriation of our Soldier Dead, it all boils down to the question: “To whom do the dead belong?”

I assert that the dead belong to both the family and to those they serve. This means that, until the dead receive formal identification and are officially handed over to the Next of Kin, they belong to each and every citizen of the United States, for it is on our behalf that they gave their lives.

As such, there will be those of us who agree that these men and women died for a worthy cause, and there will be those who disagree with this premise. Undoubtedly, some of those who disagree may attempt to use the formal recognition of the receipt of our dead to convey their disagreement.

And, undoubtedly, there will be those who agree with our call to arms who will, in their own way, use the receipt of our dead to support their position.

Dissension and the employment of images of our war dead for one reason or another is inevitable, and should be looked upon as a peculiar feature of our process for displaying and resolving conflict. It is part of our heritage and, as such, should not be squelched.

In conclusion, there is no pleasing everyone, but I would dare say that, while some families may feel that they have lost control of how their loved ones are portrayed, many more families will be comforted by the embrace of many millions who, heretofore, have been “banned” their chance to both offer and receive comfort.

Michael Sledge
author of Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury, and Honor Our Military Fallen

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a Gold Star Father I am sickened and offended by your claim that our fallen Heroes are the property of the country and not the families that grieve their loss. Are you a Gold Star family member? Dover AFB is a mortuary facility that welcomes our fallen Heroes home and prepares them for burial. Families of the fallen are invited there to welcome home the brave men and women and to begin the process of grieving and letting go of their Hero. No more than you would want a camera over the shoulder of your family at a local mortuary, America's Gold Star families do not want the solemn and private moments at Dover disturbed by reporters taking pictures and asking questions. To ask every family for permission during this grieving process is unrealistic and logistically impossible. Who gets to make the decision? Many families members don't even know of the death of their soldier by the time the service member gets to Dover. One of the interesting things I saw on the news was that CNN conducted a poll of Americans on what they think and tried to use that as justification for changing the policy. This isn't up to America, this should have been up to the Gold Star families who have already been through the process and understand the implications of this policy change.