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Ban On Media Coverage Of Military Coffins Revisited

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Ban On Media Coverage Of Military Coffins Revisited


Ban On Media Coverage Of Military Coffins Revisited

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Since the First Gulf War in 1991, the Pentagon has barred the media from covering the arrival of coffins at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The coffins carry the remains of Americans killed in combat. The military has argued that the ban protects the privacy of families. Critics ask whether it's more about obscuring the true cost of war.

President Obama said this week that it's time for the policy to be reviewed and perhaps reversed.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: It's a scene that has taken place thousands of times since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A plane lands at Dover, and one by one flag-draped coffins are carried from the cargo hold by soldiers in full dress uniforms. The ceremony is somber and moving and witnessed by few. Opponents of the Iraq War accused President Bush of keeping the cameras away from Dover for political reasons. In 2004, Vice President Joe Biden was the U.S. senator from Delaware. At the time he called it shameful that soldiers' remains were being, quote, "snuck back into the country under the cover of night." And at a news conference Monday night, President Obama was asked if he'll change the policy.

President BARACK OBAMA: Your question is timely. We got reports that four American service members have been killed in Iraq today. And you know, obviously our thoughts and prayers go out to the families.

GONYEA: Mr. Obama added that the weight of the presidency hits you when you sign letters to the families of fallen heroes. Then he said only that the policy is under review and that he shouldn't comment further.

A day later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, noted that he first considered changing the policy a year ago but that he was discouraged from doing so by the Bush White House. The concern, he said, was privacy and that some families would feel compelled to be at Dover for the return of their loved one.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): For some families this would delay the return of the remains home. For others it would be a financial hardship to get to Dover.

GONYEA: But Gates also stated that the policy is worth reviewing again to see if the needs of the families and concerns about privacy can be met.

John Ellsworth lost his son in Iraq in 2004. Today, he heads a group called Military Families United. He says families have many different opinions on the policy but he hopes they'll always have a choice. Ellsworth said some would welcome cameras.

Mr. JOHN ELLSWORTH (President, Military Families United): On the other hand, some folks don't want to share that. It's too fresh. It's too hard for them.

GONYEA: At the University of Delaware, Professor Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN correspondent, has fought unsuccessfully in the courts for the release of government photos taken at Dover. He says it's an important element of the story of any war.

Professor RALPH BEGLEITER (University of Delaware): What I'm about to say I say with the fullest respect, honest respect for all of the families who themselves have made a sacrifice by giving up their family members. But I would say the people who die on our behalf do not make that sacrifice solely for their families. They do it for the nation.

GONYEA: Neither the White House nor the Pentagon has been willing to say how long it will take to review and possibly reverse the policy banning media coverage at Dover Air Force Base.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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