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Families allowing coverage of fallen soldiers

In the weeks since the Pentagon ended a ban on media coverage of fallen soldiers returning to the U.S., most families have allowed reporters and photographers to witness the solemn ceremonies.
Casualty Returns
The remains of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers, of Hopewell, Va., who was killed Afghanistan on April 4, arrive at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on April 5. Myers was the first casualty to be observed arriving at Dover since the ban on media news coverage of returning war dead was put in place 18 years ago. Evan Vucci / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the weeks since the Pentagon ended an 18-year ban on media coverage of fallen soldiers returning to the United States, most families given the option have allowed reporters and photographers to witness the solemn ceremonies that mark the arrival of flag-draped transfer cases.

Critics had warned that military families needed privacy and peace activists might exploit the images, but so far the coverage has not caused problems.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers who died April 4 in Afghanistan, was the first combat casualty whose return to American soil was witnessed by the media. He was to be buried with full military honors Monday afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery.

With permission from his widow, Aimee, the military opened Dover Air Force Base earlier this month so reporters and photographers could chronicle his return. The mortuary there is the entry point for service members killed overseas.

The ban on media coverage dated back to 1991, when President George H.W. Bush imposed it during the Persian Gulf War. It was cast as a way to protect the privacy of grieving families, but critics argued that officials were trying to hide the human and political cost of war.

"I think it was to protect the government's butt," said David Pautsch, who allowed the media to witness the return of his son Jason, an Army corporal from Davenport, Iowa, who was killed with four other soldiers in a bombing in Iraq.

He said the ban was more about minimizing the political impact of Americans dying overseas.

"I think it was a reaction against the second-guessing of our country's mission," he said.

Return of loved ones
Since the ban was lifted, 19 families have been asked whether they wanted media coverage of their loved one's return and 14 have said yes.

"That's a pretty good majority," Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, a Pentagon spokesman, said earlier this month, when 16 families had been asked and 13 had consented. He said, though, that it's still too early to tell whether military families favor the new policy.

Rose Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office, said reporters have been cooperative and there haven't been any problems.

Media interest has fallen off sharply since almost 40 reporters, photographers and camera operators turned out to document the arrival of Myers' body. At a more recent casualty arrivals, the only media representative was a lone photographer from The Associated Press.

Even if no one from the media shows up, the Department of Defense films each casualty arrival for which consent is given and presents a recording to the family.

Christie Woods initially declined media coverage of the return of her husband, Staff Sgt. Gary L. Woods Jr., who was killed along with Jason Pautsch. She changed her mind so family members who couldn't travel to Dover would have the video, according to casualty assistance officer Sgt. Joseph Chapman.

Talking to reporters
Families must make the difficult decision about whether to allow media coverage, and whether to travel to Dover, within hours of being told of a loved one's death.

The military's long-term goal is to have each service member make the decision before deploying to a combat zone rather than having the family choose after the fact.

While survivors are asked whether they consent to media coverage and want to travel to Dover, a policy memo issued by Defense Secretary Robert Gates states that media contact with family members will be allowed "only if specifically requested" by the family.

Mortuary affairs office officials say they will help facilitate a meeting if a family indicates that it would like to talk with the media. So far, the Pautsch family has been the only one to do so.

David Pautsch said he understands the military is trying to be sensitive but believes families should be asked whether they want to speak to the media rather than having to volunteer their desire.

"We shouldn't be afraid of letting people express their opinions," he said.