Saturday, July 12, 2008

Putting Her Foot Down and Getting the Boot

Former Arlington Public Affairs Director, Gina Gray was recently fired after being on that job for less than 3 months. It seems that Ms Gray felt that her job was, in part, to be an advocate for families. Dana Milbank from the Washington Post reports that Ms Gray

discovered that cemetery officials were attempting to impose new limits on media coverage of funerals of the Iraq war dead -- even after the fallen warriors' families granted permission for the coverage. She said that the new restrictions were wrong and that Army regulations didn't call for such limitations.
Just 10 days on the job, she was handling media coverage for the burial of a Marine colonel who had been killed in Iraq when she noticed that Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery's deputy superintendent, had moved the media area 50 yards away from the service, obstructing the photographs and making the service inaudible. The Washington Sketch column on April 24 noted that Gray pushed for more access to the service but was "apparently shot down by other cemetery officials."
In response to Gray's actions, retaliation in her workplace took place from her supervisors. Further, Milbank reports,

Arlington's problems with the burial of the Iraq dead go far beyond Gray; the cemetery is looking for its fourth public affairs director in the past few years. Gray contends that Higginbotham has been calling the families of the dead to encourage them not to allow media coverage at the funerals -- a charge confirmed by a high-ranking official at Arlington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Gray says Higginbotham told staff members that he called the family of the next soldier scheduled for burial at Arlington and that the family, which had originally approved coverage, had changed its mind. Gray charges that Higginbotham admitted he had been making such calls to families for a year and said that the families "appreciated him keeping the media out."

When I was notified my only child was killed in Iraq on 5.30.2004, I requested a photograph of his body being treated with dignity and respect as he arrived at Dover AFB, the mortuary for the military. I was repeatedly denied my request that week because it was “against Army regulations” and “it is to protect the privacy of the families”- apparently without regard to a family’s specific request.

Additionally, should a family wish to meet their loved one’s remains as they make the final journey home, the Department of Defense strongly discourages family members from coming to Dover to watch the caskets of the dead unload. "It's a tarmac, not a parade ground".

When I was planning my son’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, I cannot remember if I was asked about media coverage, but at least one reporter from the Washington Post was present. While Mr Markon’s report was not totally accurate, it provided a fair representation of the service. I welcomed the presence of the media, in part, because I wanted to remember the day.

America should be privileged to witness the ceremony and dignity of a military funeral. America should be required to witness and experience a family’s mournful loss as they bury their loved one, whose years on this earth were too few. America should be allowed to mourn, if only briefly, as they bear witness to the human cost of war. America owes at least that much respect for those who died while serving their country, while so few others serve.

It seems that Ms Gray was making an attempt to honor the wishes of the family, something that a family may not be able to stand up for during this difficult time and I applaud her efforts. Families going through the casualty process are extremely fragile and need more professionals at ANC like Ms Gray to be their advocate.

After more than 7 years of war and 4662 US casualties from Iraq & Afghanistan, one would have hoped for more transparency from an administration responsible for the carnage. I have little hope that the wishes of Gold Star families will ever be a priority during this presidency. January 2009 cannot come too soon for this Gold Star Mother.

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