Although only one soldier's family agreed to have his transfer photographed by the media, I'm pretty sure that the families could have cared less if the President or Osama bin Laden was on the tarmac as they saw their loved ones return in a flag covered casket. That moment when you see your loved one covered with the American flag being removed from the belly of a plane is one of the most gut wrenching sites you will ever experience. When my son's body was removed from the plane at San Francisco airport from that US Airways jet that carried him home to California from Dover, I could have crawled inside with Ken's body and never come out. The reality that my son was in that casket and would not live the rest of his life that we had dreamed for him was the most physical and emotional pain I have ever experienced. It was the worst day of my life.
I was not given the opportunity to witness Ken's "dignified transfer" at Dover AFB in Deleware; in fact, we were discouraged from and not allowed to attend his homecoming. That was the policy of the former Bush administration, presumably reinforced by Vice President Dick Cheney. In 1989 Dick Cheney, the Assistant Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration implemented the "no media" at Dover policy that stayed in effect for 18 years.
Not only was I not invited or welcome at Dover back in 2004, I was not allowed a photograph of Ken's body returning to Dover. When I asked for that photograph on the day I was told of Ken's death, the Army told me I could not have that photograph because it was against Department of Defense policy and it was for the privacy of the families.
Lifting the media ban was something that I had been vocal about for nearly 5 years and I will always be grateful that during the first few months of his presidency, Obama changed the media policy at Dover. I know that some Gold Star families (we, who have lost a loved one who was serving in the military) did not agree with the lifting of the ban, but for those of us who would have wanted to witness this return home and share that images with our country, President Obama gave those families who came after us an opportunity that we did not have.
Nearly two thirds of families have agreed to have their loved one's return by photographed by the media, and even more have agreed to have photographs taken by the Pentagon. The change in policy did not result in any dire change of behavior by the media or political parties as some had suggested would happen. The photographs have shown the dignity and respect afforded to these members of the military on their final journey home.
MSNBC reported the President's comments after his trip to Dover : "It was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day, not only our troops but their families as well," Obama said from the White
House, reflecting briefly on his surprise middle-of-the-night trip to Dover Air Force Base to observe the return of the fallen Americans to the United States.Speaking softly and somewhat haltingly, Obama said losses such as these are "something that I think about each and every day."
I believe that President Obama does think about the war losses every day. On Memorial Day earlier this year, as a member of American Gold Star Mothers, I was among sevveral groups of veteran's service organizations who attended a breakfast with the President at the White House. President Obama sat with 6 Gold Star Mothers and 2 Gold Star fathers. I was told it was the first time that an administration invited veteran's service organizations to the White House on Memorial Day. In 2008, after former president Bush participated in the wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery, he returned to the White House to honor the NCAA basketball champions. I still wonder if that ceremony might have waited a day to allow the president to continue to honor the military, but we were never a priority in his day or his administration.
In February 2009, Washington Times reporter, Christina Bellatoni wrote about President Obama's approach to the solemn task of writing offical letters of condolence to families of the fallen from Iraq & Afghanistan.
In his first few weeks in office, sometime between celebratory bill signings and phone calls from foreign leaders, President Obama sat in the Oval Office for the most somber task of his presidency - penning letters to families of troops killed in combat.
"This was real, it was personal, it was so important to us," said Thya Merz, whose son Marine Lance Cpl. Julian Brennan was killed Jan. 24 in Afghanistan.
The letter was signed "Barack," Ms. Merz told The Washington Times.
"Not 'president,' just his first name, and it just felt like, OK, my son has been acknowledged," she said.
Mr. Obama personalizes each letter, asking staffers to gather details about the service member, such as their hometown and where they were stationed, a White House aide said. The letters are sent to parents and spouses, and sometimes children of the fallen troops.
The president writes the notes by hand, then the letters are typed before he adds his signature.
Mr. Obama wrote the first few letters for troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan while George W. Bush was president, and has written at least a dozen more since taking office.
The president told NBC News that the duty falls to him, though he did not initiate the wars and opposed the invasion of Iraq. In those moments of signing the letters, he said, "you realize every decision you make counts."
I believe President Obama thinks about the fighting men and women of the military in a way that George Bush never did. I hope that he keeps these sacrifices in mind when he makes his decision on whether the number of troops in Afghanistan will be increased or decreased. My vote is to bring them home NOW!