The story about the ban on photographs of flag covered caskets of fallen soldiers has been gaining some traction since Monday night when a CNN reporter asked President Obama whether the policy was being reviewed. Obama responded that "we are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Department of Defense.". That's good news.
It is also good news to read that Secretary Gates said "I think that looking at it again makes all kinds of sense," and that he was "pretty open to whatever the results of this review may be." He had even raised the possibility of changing it as recently as a year ago when the Bush administration renewed it's enforcement of the ban. There was never a chance to lift the ban during the Bush administration, although when I met with former Secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey, he seemed interested in at least reviewing the policy.
I take this ban on photographs of the flag covered caskets a little personally. On Memorial Day morning 2004, when I was notified of the death of my only child, 1Lt Ken Ballard in Iraq I requested a photograph of his flag-covered casket being returned to Dover AFB. I wanted to see that his body was treated with dignity and respect. I was denied that request with the response that it was "against Army regulations" and "for the privacy of the family". There are no words to describe how devastating this response was to me and caused further pain to my already aching heart. A photograph was never provided to me. Although we have been assured of the dignity and respect afforded our returning casualties, I will never see how the military welcomed him home.
The military has said the policy is meant to protect the privacy of the families of the dead soldiers and maintain dignity. With no identification on these caskets, I do not understand how this policy is "for the privacy of the family". We should rather consider a concept called the Dover Test. Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe describes it"people speak of 'the Dover test,' Pentagon parlance for how many casualties Americans can stomach before they begin in large numbers to question whether the cause is worth so many American lives." But, he noted, "The Defense Department continues to ban any photographs or observation of the bodies returning from overseas."
I am also perplexed when people say it should be the soldier who decides if a photograph is taken of their flag covered casket. Really? An Army who can't even insure that a soldier has a will, much less a properly executed one, is going to make that same soldier decide if a photo should be taken of their casket in the unfortunate circumstances of their death? Please!
The New York Times also reported that Gates said he was told -- he did not say by whom -- that allowing photographers would put undue pressure on families to go to Dover themselves and that in some cases that would be a hardship. During those first awful days after a family is told that their loved one is not coming home alive and while they are waiting about a week for the body to be returned, I seriously doubt that many, if any families consider a trip to Dover AFB, the mortuary for the Department of Defense. Making plans to go to Dover never got on my to-do list that week and the trip never occurred to me; I was lucky to get out of bed. I have never heard from a Gold Star family that would have liked to go to Dover unless it was the nearest airport to their home. Finally, a service member's return to their home airport is generally met with some kind of honor guard or welcome ceremony from the military (although early in the war many families picked up their loved ones caskets at the cargo area of the airport, but that is another story-they tried that on me, but I refused). Dover is how the military honors our loved ones; the local airport is for the local community. This argument about families feeling the need to go to Dover should be put to rest.
When Ken came home to San Francisco on June 8, 2004, he arrived in the belly of a US Airways jet, his casket covered with the red, white & blue of a United States flag. I was on the tarmac when the plane pulled up and the first glimpse of his casket was heart wrenching and possibly as difficult a moment as when I was first notified of his death 8 days before. The airline, TSA and public service employees treated his casket with dignity and respect as should have been afforded him. This ceremony also included an Army Honor Guard and an Army Color Guard. A television station filmed the ceremony and there were photographers present. I was not aware of their presence and not one of them interfered with my privacy. Maybe I was lucky; maybe I was fortunate to have professional journalists assigned to cover Ken's return. The reason you see these photographs is because the ban only applies to military facilities.
When you hear that 1 soldier has been killed in war, you might pause. When you hear that the US casualty count from Iraq and Afghanistan is 4886, you might pause a little longer. But when you see an image of a flag covered casket, it should make the viewer pause for a moment and grieve for the family during this most difficult time. It's the least we can do for the Gold Star families. After 8 years of war, it is time for this nation to participate in these homecomings, even as a viewer of a photograph.
See the difference of how Canada honors their war dead as they return home along the Highway of Heroes. And in Wooten Bassett, a small town right outside of British Royal Air Force Base in Lyneham, England, the community gathers each time as British war dead make their final journey home. It's time the US learns something from other members of the world community of how they honor, not hide their returning warriors. We should do better. We can do better. Yes, we can.