Pentagon Was Correct to Lift the Photo Ban on Military Coffins Returning Home

Photographing coffins of fallen service members lets us honor their return, argues Ron Milam.

In this undated picture made by the US Department of Defense, flag-draped coffins of US war casualties are handled by fellow soldiers in Dover, Del. A website published photographs of American war dead arriving at the nation's largest military mortuary from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a NASA spokesman said that at least 18 rows of photos on the site were of the Columbia astronauts. The photographs were released to First Amendment activist Russ Kick, who had filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

In this undated picture made by the US Department of Defense, flag-draped coffins of US war casualties are handled by fellow soldiers in Dover, Del.

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The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have both issued statements supporting the ban, and their unqualified allegiance to America's veterans is acknowledged. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates conducted a poll of the families of the deceased to determine whether they supported lifting the ban. This was proper and addressed the issue of privacy. Some have advocated asking deployed personnel whether they choose to have their coffins displayed in the event of a return to their homeland through Dover. Assuming the logistics could be worked out, this might have been a compromise position for the current administration.

A society's recognition of its precious dead from battle has been chronicled throughout world history, and we know of the great burial rites, memorials, oratory, and parades of ancient civilizations and cultures. It is ironic that America is sensitive to such displays at a time when we should be recognizing the sacrifices of those who voluntarily choose to serve in the military. Notwithstanding all of the controversy surrounding Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, how can we not dignify these fallen warriors by allowing all of us whom they represented in battle to participate in their tragic but important homecoming?

Our nation and we as citizens recruited them, we trained them, and we deployed them in our name. The least we can do is to honor them by our attention to their repatriation.

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  • Ron Milam
    Vietnam vet, interim director of Texas Tech's Center for War and Diplomacy in the Post-Vietnam War Era.