The Pentagon’s 18-year ban on media coverage of fallen U.S. service members returning home ended quietly, with only an officer’s sharp order to salute accompanying a single flag-covered casket being unloaded from a cargo plane.
After receiving permission from family members, the military opened Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to the media Sunday night for the return of the body of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers of Hopewell, Va.
The 30-year-old airman was killed April 4 near Helmand province, Afghanistan, when he was hit with an improvised explosive device, the Department of Defense said.
Myers’ family was the first to be asked under a new Pentagon policy whether it wished to have media coverage of the arrival of a loved one at the Dover base mortuary, the entry point for service personnel killed overseas. The family agreed, but declined to be interviewed or photographed.
On a cool, clear night under the yellowish haze of floodlights on the tarmac, an eight-member team wearing white gloves and camouflage battle fatigues carried Myers’ body off of a military contract Boeing 747 that touched down at 9:19 p.m. after a flight from Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Myers’ widow and other family members, along with about two dozen members of the media, attended the solemn ceremony, which took about 20 minutes and was punctuated only by clicking of camera shutters and the barked salute orders of Col. Dave Horton, operations group commander of Dover’s 436th Airlift Wing.
Horton presided over the ceremony along with Air Force civil engineer Maj. Gen. Del Eulberg and Maj. Klavens Noel, a mortuary chaplain.
Noel and the other officers boarded the plane for a brief prayer before an automatic loader slowly lowered the flag-draped transfer case bearing Myers’ body about 20 feet to the tarmac, where the eight-member team slowly carried it to a white-paneled truck.
Preceded by a security vehicle with flashing blue and red lights, the truck then slowly made its way to the base mortuary, where Myers’ body was to be processed for return to his family.
Myers was a member of the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron with the Royal Air Force in Lakenheath, England, one of the bases the U.S. Air Force uses in the country. He was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery last year in recognition of his efforts in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Department of Defense said.
Myers’ widow flew from England to attend the arrival of his body to the U.S., which marked the first time since 1991 that members of media were allowed to witness the return of a combat casualty to Dover.
The ban was put in place by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, at the time of the Persian Gulf War. From the start, it was cast as a way to shield grieving families.
But critics argued the government was trying to hide the human cost of war. President Barack Obama had asked for a review of the ban, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that the blanket restriction made him uncomfortable.
Under the new policy, families of fallen servicemen will decide whether to allow media coverage of their return. If several bodies arrive on the same flight, news coverage will be allowed only for those whose families have given permission.
There have been some exceptions since 1991, most notably in 1996 when President Bill Clinton attended the arrival of the remains of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 32 others killed in a plane crash in Croatia. In 2000, the Pentagon distributed photographs of the arrival of remains of those killed in the bombing of the USS Cole and in 2001, the Air Force distributed a photograph of the remains of a victim of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.
One objection to lifting the ban had been that if the media were present, some families might feel obligated to come to Dover for the brief, solemn ritual in which honor guards carry the caskets off a plane.
Few families now choose to attend, in part because doing so means leaving home and the support system of friends at a difficult time. The sudden trip can also be expensive and logistically difficult, though the military provides transportation for up to three members to greet their service members at Dover.