There are over 50,000 fatal car crashes every year in America, and there are hundreds of thousands of other accidents, sudden medical emergencies and so on. But never does one expect to see a somber-faced policeman at their door relating bad news about a loved one. You never think it’s going to be your family that is touched by tragedy.
Comparable to this civilian experience is a military family seeing an armed services officer and chaplain at their door. Your first hope is that perhaps your soldier has been injured. Nothing can prepare you for the shock that your hero is not coming home. Despite a conscious knowledge of the risks and danger facing them, you never think that something will happen to your loved one.
Amidst the shock and grief, the military family must wait several days before their fallen hero is brought home to them. The soldier is transported from overseas to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where final military and medical procedures are performed before the fallen is escorted home.
The practice of photographing the flag-draped coffins of soldiers as they arrive in Dover was banned by President George H.W. Bush 18 years ago, and this was continued under President Clinton and the second President Bush, to allow the family privacy and respect. However, a journalism professor and anti-war activist at the University of Delaware sued the Pentagon in 2005 to force a media presence at Dover. President Obama has since overturned the ban and is allowing photographs of our returning fallen soldiers. This is a great disrespect and inconsideration to those who have lost a soldier, as current polls show that almost 90 percent of military families do not want the media at Dover.
The fallen soldier’s loved ones should not be subjected to the indignity of his casket on the television before they are allowed to physically pay their respects. For photographers to intrude at Dover is an invasion of privacy and very inappropriate at such an emotional and devastating time.
For those few families who want photographers at Dover, if their true motive is to honor their hero, there are many opportunities for them to invite the media to pay respect to their fallen soldier without compromising the great majority of families who do not want the media present. For example, they can request the media to photograph their soldier as he is being transported from Dover to Arlington or their hometown; they can be at funeral and gravesite ceremonies; and days before their soldier even arrives in Dover the family can invite the media into their home to give a tribute to their fallen hero.
The secretary of defense has stated that photographs will only be allowed at Dover with the family’s permission. But this still adds confusion and unnecessary stress during such an emotional time. Pre-existing family strife, such as divorce, separation and blended families, can escalate at such times. Determining whose wishes should be observed can become a battle. All this will detract from the function of Dover, which is to conduct a routine military procedure before escorting the fallen soldier home to family.
The military ritual at Dover is a solemn one in which respect is paid to a fallen comrade-in-arms. Dover is a place of transit for the soldier on their final journey home, and it is not a place for media.
After a soldier passes, the Department of Defense releases to the press the official military photograph of the fallen hero. From the very start of such a tragedy, the media are provided with a picture that they are free to use in telling the life story of a soldier. But to photograph a coffin at Dover reduces a sacrifice of a human being to an anonymous, depersonalized commodity.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama graciously declared to the press that families of the contenders should be off-limits in their coverage. Accurately reporting an event in a candidate’s child’s life is acceptable; however, the use of children for political purposes is not just inappropriate but is morally wrong. How much more inaccessible to the press and the potential politicizing should be someone’s child who has fought and died for our country? President Obama, please have as much compassion on our fallen soldiers’ families as you did for your political opponents, and allow the media ban at Dover to remain in place.