MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now, we wanted to talk about a sensitive issue, how and whether we view the remains of servicemen and -women who have died in conflicts overseas. Since 1991, with only a few exceptions, the media has been barred from filming or photographing the flag-draped coffins of service members as they arrive back at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base from Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama has said he is considering lifting the ban. Most news organizations and many political activists see the ban as politically motivated, even as censorship. But we decided to ask some of the people who have had reason to think about the issue more than most: military families who sadly have lost a loved one. Here with us to discuss the ban are two Gold Star mothers, moms who lost their sons in Iraq. Karen Meredith is the mother of Lieutenant Ken Ballard, United States Army, who died in Iraq in May of 2004; she's a member of Gold Star Families Speak Out and American Gold Star Mothers; and Merrilee Carlson is the mother of Sergeant Michael Carlson, United States Army, who died in January of 2005 in Iraq. She is also the president of Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Ms. KAREN MEREDITH (Member, Gold Star Families Speak Out, American Gold Star Mothers): Thank you.
Ms. MERRILEE CARLSON (President, Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission): Thank you.
MARTIN: Karen, if we could start with you, what is your view of the media ban?
Ms. MEREDITH: Well, my view started the day that I was told that Ken was not coming home. I asked for a photograph of his body being returned to Dover, and I was refused that request. They told me it was against Army regulations and that it was for the privacy of the family, and even though I specifically asked for the photograph because I wanted to see the military welcome my son home to his country and I wanted to see that he was being honored with dignity and respect, and I was refused that.
MARTIN: Were you given a reason for this, what the reason for the ban is, what you were told?
Ms. MEREDITH: They just said it was against Army regulations. And I had known about the ban, and for some reason, I had to wherewithal to remember that and ask for that photograph, but it wasn't any political reason. I just wanted the country to be able to mourn with me, and we're not allowed to do that with the ban.
MARTIN: Merrilee, I understand that you have a different view, and I also understand that there - you had an experience with the media that may play a part in that.
Ms. CARLSON: Yes. First of all, Karen, thank you for the gift of your precious son Ken to our country. We had a negative experience with the media, which - there are lot of components to it. One has to do with how families have been treated by the media. We were treated absolutely horribly.
MARTIN: Do you mind telling me how? I was asking...
Ms. CARLSON: Sure.
MARTIN: Before, what happened?
Ms. CARLSON: Sure. When I arrived, after getting a phone call, my husband and I were on vacation, and my son called us to let us know that his brother had died. When we arrived home at the airport, we were picked up by the military and escorted home. Unbeknownst to me, my son had confided in a friend of his who happened to be a reporter, with the understanding that this reporter would give him 24 hours before he would let this information be known. As I walked in the door of my home to greet my son, who had to tell me that his brother was dead, he was furious; he was throwing things; he was in a sheer rage, because on the TV as we walked in the door was Michael's story. Now, I don't know about anybody else, but that turned my next half an hour from us sharing and grieving together to trying to figure out how I'm going to calm down somebody who has just been totally abused. In Karen's case, to me, I think that the family's requests should be regarded in all aspects, and so, she should have been able to get those photos, but I don't know if lifting the ban is correct as opposed to allowing the families to make the decision.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with two Gold Star mothers, mothers who have lost sons in Iraq, and we're talking about the Obama administration's decision to reconsider the ban on photographing the return of service members who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Karen, what about this - Merrilee's point about privacy, that some people may just want to keep their grieving to themselves and they don't wish to have that moment shared with the public?
Ms. MEREDITH: I just think that it's insulting to Americans who aren't allowed to grieve as a nation, and during Vietnam, when the photographs were shown on the evening news, there weren't any names on them, but it was a way for the nation to grieve, even momentarily. There are some people who think that it might be politically motivated to release the pictures. It's politically motivated to not release them, either. So, there has to be some kind of happy medium that the families are allowed to grieve privately, but the nation needs to do the same thing. And this is an honor guard that our - the people who are part of the Dover ceremony, and at any other military installation along the way. For instance, when Ken came home to San Francisco Airport, there were - there was media there; I wasn't aware of it, but I didn't have a problem. I wanted people to be able to grieve with me, and they were.
MARTIN: Merrilee, what about Karen's two points? One is that in the view of some, taking their pictures is politically motivated; withholding the pictures is also politically motivated, that the ban went into affect not because of complaints by family members. It went into effect in 1991 when the first President Bush, President George H. W. Bush, imposed the ban on the arrival of fallen service members remains during the Gulf War in February of 1991 because there was a split-screen picture on a television channel, where the service members were returning home at the same time he was preparing for a press conference, and he - apparently they didn't like the banter that he was engaging. It was felt that the contrast was disrespectful. So, it wasn't family members' concerns that arose. What do you say to that?
Ms. CARLSON: Well, the challenge is, you know, what does the family really want? I've got a quote from one of our mothers whose son arrived at Dover, and this is - I think that talks to the entire story. She wrote:
(Reading) When our son arrived into Dover Air Force Base, my husband had arranged to be there as they took him off of the plane. We couldn't imagine him being all alone. It was a very private and emotional moment and one that should have belonged only to us. We were inundated by press at our home, at the funeral and for months after, and we were generous with their access.
And this means access for the world to know the rest of their story.
MARTIN: So, that moment...
Ms. CARLSON: And she continues...
MARTIN: So, that moment at Dover was particularly important because that was a moment of privacy that was preservable (ph), is that it?
Ms. CARLSON: Absolutely. She continued:
(Reading) But they were very grateful that they weren't allowed to be present at Dover. This was our precious son, not a political statement.
And she's talking about not a political statement one way or another. This is, you know, my baby; when Karen's son Ken came home, it was her baby, her precious child, and for the media to have full access would enable those - that same media to use those photos at their discretion, not necessarily to regard to the hero and/or their family.
MARTIN: But Merrilee, can I push you on this point, though? The freedom of the press is a value, is a core value, of the United States that is part of what your son was fighting for. Do you understand the perspective of those who believe that this is an attempt to shape a narrative in a way that doesn't comport with those values? Does that make sense at all?
Ms. CARLSON: No.
Ms. CARLSON: I believe that, you know, my son fought for that. However, at this time when my son's body arrived at Dover, he was my baby, he was my personal, precious baby, and I should have the right to say no to the media. I should have the right to control what is happening at that moment, because that, you know, for some families, that is the first time they see their son or the casket, that flag-draped casket. And that's the moment where the message that your son or daughter died becomes a reality. And that is up for the families - as far as I'm concerned, that's up for the family to decide. And again, so, rather than lifting the ban, I would suggest that perhaps a better way is to enable that to be revised to allow the family to make a decision.
MARTIN: Karen, what about that? Which is the policy at Arlington, which is that family members can choose to permit the media to be there or not, as they say. What do you think about that idea?
Ms. MEREDITH: We are not encouraged to go to Dover. So, for this family member to have been there was unusual. And I know family members who were not only discouraged but refused access to Dover when they wanted to go welcome their child back. So, it's - the military is not consistent if people are - or families are allowed to go there. But I just think that, as a member of the military, you are part of - in the public, but when you see a name, it doesn't mean as much as when you see a photograph, and I think people need to be allowed to mourn, and we are not allowing them to do that. And obviously, the reporter in your case violated those rules, that nobody finds out until 24 hours after the family is told. So, you should be mad at the reporter and not at the policy, in my opinion.
Ms CARLSON: Right. However, this policy is part of the media...
MARTIN: Well, I think from the standpoint of the media, the media was told that the...
Ms. CARLSON: That the media was...
MARTIN: That the family was - I think - I don't know. I wasn't there.
Ms. CARLSON: Yeah.
MARTIN: But my guess is that from the standpoint of the...
Ms. CARLSON: And that...
MARTIN: The family was told because your son was told.
Ms. CARLSON: Yeah. Except for...
Ms. MEREDITH: But the military...
Ms. CARLSON: Except for he is not listed, and so, he was not official, and that was an unofficial telling. They didn't make it official until we sat down after that news report was out...
MARTIN: I understand what you're...
Ms. CARLSON: And that's when it became official.
Ms. CARLSON: And so, I don't think anybody wants to hide these guys, but I think that the moment needs to be a family decision, and - because they want their hero shared with the world because that's what - they've given their life for the world. And - but I think that they need to be able to make that decision and not have it taken out of their hands by lifting this ban completely, which would allow access to media who - you know, I want to say 99 percent of the media are going to treat them with honor, but it only takes one.
MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there. Merrilee Carlson is the mother of Sergeant Michael Carlson, United States Army. He died in January of 2005. We are also joined by Karen Meredith. She is the mother of Lieutenant Ken Ballard, United States Army, who died in Iraq of May 2004. Karen joined us on the phone from her home in Mountain View, California, and Merrilee joined us from KNOW in St. Paul, Minnesota. I thank you both, ladies, so much for joining us and thank you for sharing your story. And I do want to say, once again, I am so very sorry for your loss.
Ms. MEREDITH: Thank you so much.
Ms. CARLSON: Thank you very much, Michel. And again, Karen, thank you for your wonderful hero, Ken.
Ms. MEREDITH: Thanks.
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MARTIN: The magazine mavens are next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.