It seems that the military still hasn't figured out the proper & respectful treatment of fallen soldiers and their families.
We know that the administration has ruled that there will be no photographs of flag covered caskets as they make their last journey home. We don't see those images as the bodies are flown into Dover AFB, the mortuary for the military. We have been told that there is a reception for every fallen soldier arriving at Dover with a general officer and an honor team from the Old Guard. We are told that every step of the way, everyone involved exhibits great reverence and respect for each fallen soldier. But we don't have evidence of this because there are no photographs and families are not welcome at Dover. Even if a family requests a photograph of their loved one's caskest, as I did 4 years ago, they are denied becase it is 'against Army regulations" and "it is for the privacy of the families". Despite my persistence, I never received a photograph. I was and remain heartbroken because the Army refused my simple request for a photograph from Dover that would have documented the final journey home for my son, Lt Ken Ballard.
Still today, it seems that the military has figured out one more way to show their disrespect for fallen soldiers. At a 3:30 press conference this afternoon (nice timing, release sucky news on Friday afternoon when no one is likely to notice), the Pentagon is recommending changes in the handling of troops' remains, after it was revealed that crematoriums contracted by the military handle both human and animal cremations. A military official said there have been no instances or charges that human and pet remains were mixed. But officials are now recommending that troops' remains be incinerated at a facility that is dedicated entirely to humans, in order to avoid any appearance of a problem. Defense Secretary Robert Gates believed the earlier situation was "insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
"Our heroes deserve to be better treated than that," Morrell said, he said Gates offered an apology to military families for the insensitivity.
Late this afternoon, I got a call from my friend, Diane in Pennsylvania, Neil's Gold Star Mom, who had received a call from a local media outlet in Pittsburgh, PA informing her of this development. Diane called me immediately to alert me to this new Friday factoid, knowing that Ken was cremated. I didn't think much about it until I remembered that Ken had been classified by the Army as "unviewable" because of the devastating head injury he had suffered, so I never was able to view his body back in June 2004. I knew if I asked the Army today to confirm that Ken's body was returned to California, that I would never know the truth, regardless of their response, as the Army had so mishandled so much about Ken's casualty process.
After Diane's call, I thought I remembered seeing the name & a local location on the receipt for the cremation, but who knows what I remembered from those awful first days? I immediately called the local funeral home that handled Ken's funeral and cremation to confirm that Ken's body and not remains were shipped to California for the services. I was assured that the military escort officer knew Ken personally and was able to identify that it was his body to the Mortuary. The fact that Ken was cremated in accordance with proper mortuary protocol is good news to me; that I had to ask the question is problematic. The families whose loved ones were cremated out of Dover will always wonder.
There have been some improvements to the casualty process. In the early days of the war, some bodies were returned home to their families in the belly of a commercial aircraft and offloaded to the cargo area of the airport to await the arrival of the hearse. There is no ceremony or reverence to that; those loved ones underneath the red, white and blue were not treated as precious cargo, they were left to sit among the bags and boxes awaiting processing. Families soon demanded that our sons & daughters deserved better and the policy was changed to allow a family to request that the their loved ones be delivered home in a private jet to the nearest airport.
Even in the 6th year of this war/occupation, the Department of Defense seems to be unable to avoid appearances of problems, even if there are none. There are some people who work within the casualty process who just don't get it and probably never will. These "bodies" are some one's loved one. They are a precious part of some one's life and they should be treated with dignity and respect as military families are promised. A family should never doubt that their loved one is treated with the utmost respect as befitting someone who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service for their country.
Our heroes do deserve to be better treated than that and so do those left behind.