WASHINGTON, DC – On Monday afternoon, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers will be buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
When the airman was killed by a roadside bomb on April 4 in Afghanistan his widow, Aimee, gave the Department of Defense permission for the media to cover the return of his body to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, becoming the first fallen soldier returning to the States to be documented by photographers since the 18-year-old media ban on coverage was lifted by the Barack Obama administration at the direction of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
As airman Myers is buried today in the cemetery that is America's most solemn national icon for the country's war dead, the Associated Press report that since the ban was lifted most families asked have given their permission to allow reporters and photographers to witness Dover's "dignified transfer of remains," as the military calls it. So far, AP's Randall Chase reports, there have been no problems, and critics of the ban being lifted who claimed that military families wanted their privacy or who feared that "peace activists" would use the images for propaganda have been disproved.
Chase reports that since airman Myers' return to Dover, the military has asked 19 families for media coverage permission and of that group 14 of the families have said yes.
Even if the family says yes and no media attends the arrival, the military videotapes the transfer of remains and provides a copy of the tape to the fallen soldier's family, AP says, so that family members who may not have been able to travel to the air base can have the tape as a remembrance.
The ban was lifted in February when Gates reviewed the media ban at Obama's request, and the new Dover guidelines for media coverage were implemented shortly after that. For the Dover coverage plan Gates used as a template the long-standing guidelines in place at Arlington National Cemetery, where each family is asked whether they want media coverage of their fallen solder's burial and if they consent, photographers and reporters witness the ceremony as a group from a respectful distance.
Soldiers' bodies are brought back to the States through Dover because the base houses the military's largest mortuary facility. The bodies come home to the States in identical flag-draped metal transfer cases, and after military mortuary workers prepare the bodies they are then transfered to caskets for travel to their hometowns and families for burial.
During the Vietnam War the daily pictures of so many flag-covered bodies coming back to the tarmac in Dover helped shift America's attitude to be against the war, so much so that the Pentagon began referring to how the public might react to a military operation's casualties as "the Dover test."
The George H. W. Bush administration didn't want public opinion against the first Gulf War to possibly shift by seeing bodies of soldiers coming home from a war that was supposed to be "high tech" and have fewer casualties, and so the ban went into place. It continued through the Bill Clinton administration and during the George W. Bush administration defense secretary Gates asked for the policy to be reviewed, and he was rebuffed.
The ban came up again during President Obama's first live, prime-time television press conference shortly after his inauguration. CNN's Ed Henry asked Obama during the press conference whether the ban would be lifted, and Obama surprised the nation with his answer that the policy was already being reviewed by Gates and that a decision was near, and that the president intended to follow whatever Gates recommended.
The National Press Photographers Association had repeatedly called for the Dover ban to be lifted, sending letters to President Obama and Secretary Gates requesting a lifting of the ban and offering NPPA's services to advise on the formulation of new media guidelines for Dover coverage.