AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2009

Documenting the Return Of War Dead at Dover   

A former Pentagon correspondent’s first-person account

Video from AJR's Jamie McIntyre on the U.S. government decision to allow the media to attend the return of American war casualties.

By Jamie McIntyre

For nearly two decades, Pentagon officials insisted there was no way to allow news coverage of returning American war dead at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware without intruding on the privacy of families or infringing on the sanctity of the mission. But in February, the Obama administration eased the tight restrictions that had been in place since 1991. Under the revised policy, the immediate next-of-kin of the fallen are asked if they would like members of the news media on hand when the remains of their loved ones arrive at Dover and are transferred to the Air Force mortuary. In more than two-thirds of the cases, the answer from families has been "yes." The U.S. military reports there have been no problems as a result of the new access. At least one news organization has covered every arrival that has been open to the media.

A wispy fog was just burning off the Chesapeake Bay on the morning of May 12 as I crested the four-mile-long bridge that connects Annapolis with Maryland's Eastern Shore.

I was racing east to meet a U.S. Air Force C-17 that was, at the same moment, winging westward from Germany, its cavernous cargo compartment nearly empty except for two flag-covered boxes strapped down in the belly of the aircraft.

The transport plane, due at 10 a.m., carried the remains of two American soldiers, Spec. Lukasz Saczek, who was killed in Afghanistan, and Spec. Omar Albrak, who died in Iraq.

For 16 years I covered the U.S. military as CNN's primary Pentagon correspondent. I documented wars in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. But this was the first time I would witness such a ceremony.

As I crossed into Delaware, driving through tiny towns, passing farms with fields of blazing yellow buttercups, I thought of the lines of a poem I memorized as a child:

"We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields."

In the parking lot of the Dover Air Force Base visitors center, I found the other media representatives who had come to cover the ritual. All were photo journalists, from the Associated Press, Agence France Press, Getty Images and Time magazine. All had been here before, and at least one was a veteran of the U.S. military.

We were taken to a holding room and briefed on the ground rules. Once we stepped onto the tarmac, we could no longer leave the designated press area. Journalists attending arrival ceremonies at Dover are forbidden from photographing the family members of the deceased and from talking, which means no live or recorded television stand-ups or contemporaneous radio descriptions.

The military has developed its own vocabulary for the ceremony, and it strikes me as a tad Orwellian. It clearly seems aimed at downplaying the significance of the event, perhaps to justify the fact that for nearly 20 years it was hidden from public view.

For starters, our escort, a former Air Force officer who is now a civilian, told us we would witness not a "ceremony" but rather a "dignified transfer" of remains. She gave us a press packet that further explained that "the term 'ceremony' creates an impression that [it is] an event that family members need to participate in." The military, the information sheet says, doesn't want "to place any undue hardship on grieving families by making them feel obligated to attend."

We're also informed that the flag-draped coffins are not actually "coffins" or "caskets" but rather "transfer cases." What is the difference? A transfer case, the press kit explains, is used to transport the fallen service member to Dover. Once they have been prepared for return to their families they will be placed in a casket.

We are urged to adopt this nomenclature, but it is not part of the formal ground rules, which we must sign. The document includes the ominous-sounding threat that "any violation may result in intervention by base security forces."

A small van carried the media contingent out to the runway where a hulking, gray C-17 sat, its tail doors dropped open, ready to be unloaded. We positioned ourselves in a small area behind a cordon of light blue ribbon strung between shiny chrome stanchions.

The family members were brought in on a larger vehicle, which had been strategically positioned to serve as a protective screen. We couldn't see them, nor could they see us.

Most "dignified transfers" happen at night – flash photography is also prohibited – but no flash was needed on this bright Delaware day. The Army transfer team arrived and with well-practiced precision marched onto the plane. After a reverential pause, they carried the flag-covered cases, one at a time, about 100 feet to a waiting mortuary van. A pair of soldiers, led by a two-star general, snapped to salute in slow motion as the seven-member honor guard briskly walked the metal boxes to the vehicle.

The only sounds were an occasional shouted command and the staccato shutter clicks of the photographers.

The final ritual was a slow, respectful closure of the van's back doors by a white-gloved soldier. Another half-speed salute from the soldiers, and the van drove off.

The new policy intends to give families the final say over what level of access the media get, but the military still exercises firm control over what the families can authorize.

As we were driven off the base, we were told that one of the mothers wanted to talk to reporters, but the rules prohibit family interviews on base. To request a short face-to-face meeting with the mom, I gave my contact information to the public affairs officer.

We were also told the mother, Susan Atooli, wanted us to know that her son, Spec. Omar Albrak, would have celebrated his 21st birthday that day.

What I didn't discover until later was that his family had brought a sign with them that said "Happy Birthday." They had hoped to hold it up for the media to see, but that was not permitted. Even if they had held it up for us, the ground rules would have prohibited us from photographing it.

I waited for more than an hour to try to interview Susan Atooli but left after I was told she was on the way to the airport to fly home. Another hour down the road, my cell phone rang, and I got to have a brief conversation with Spec. Albrak's mother.

I pulled off the road and listened to a mom talk about her son. Omar, named after his father, had loved the military since he was young kid, she explained.

She was told he died in a "non-combat vehicle accident" in Iraq. She doesn't believe that's the truth. One Iraqi report she read online suggested his vehicle might have come under fire.

"They just want to give you the standard boilerplate explanation," Atooli told me. She says when the Army asked if she wanted media coverage of Omar's return she replied, "No problem. That's what he would have wanted. He was very proud of what he did."

"It's a sad day," she continued. "I thought it was ironic he was coming home on the same day he came into the world, his birthday."

"I don't believe in war," she added as our conversation was winding down. "I think if the politicians had to send their own family members to war, they would not be so quick to pull the trigger."

Communicating by cell phone was hard; the connection was bad. I had to ask her to repeat herself several times. It would have been so much easier if we could have talked earlier that morning, when we were just 20 feet apart, or in an appropriate space nearby on base. But the military's current rules are not designed to make it easy for families to get their stories out.

In announcing that the ban on coverage would be lifted, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "The decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should be made by those most directly affected, on an individual basis by the families of the fallen. We ought not presume to make that decision in their place."

If the goal of the policy is to accommodate the wishes of the grieving families, then the policy needs a little more work.

Jamie McIntyre

McIntyre (jamiejmcintyre@gmail.com), the former senior Pentagon correspondent for CNN, is a graduate student at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.