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April 03, 2009

Dover Policy Released

Via David M., the Dover policy was released yesterday. The press release contained a few amusing remarks:

Media with family consent to cover dignified transfer operations at Dover will be required to conduct themselves in a respectful, quiet manner so as not to disturb the solemnity of the occasion, Whitman said. That concern, he added, also requires filming and photography using only ambient light and sound.

"So, if it's 2 o'clock in the morning, you get lighting that is 2 o'clock in the morning-type lighting; if it is raining, it's raining," Whitman said. "We are not changing the dignified transfer process to accommodate media. What we are doing is accommodating the media to cover the existing dignified transfer process."

Media with family approval to cover Dover dignified transfers would be placed in an area behind the families, Whitman said, noting that the families aren't to be filmed or interviewed as they observe transfer operations. Families that agree to be interviewed by media after the transfer operations could do so, Whitman said, but only in a specified area away from the tarmac.

The proof of this policy will be in the implementation. The notion that the DT process won't be changed to accommodate media demands is risible considering that it was pressure from the press that caused the change in policy in the first place. If I had more confidence in this administration to hold the line, I might be more sanguine about this policy working smoothly.

Like McQ and Major C, I can't get past the tremendous burden this policy shift places on families at an extrememly painful and vulnerable moment. Supporters of the change blithely insist this decision will be "just like any other decision" the primary next of kin must make in the hours immediate after notification.

They reason from the best possible scenario: one where husband and wife have calmly discussed matters like this before deployment and are in agreement as to what should be done.

Having been through a good number of deployments over nearly three decades, I can tell you they're smoking crack. For military families, no pre-deployment plan survives contact with reality.

The Unit was very good about securing a power of attorney for me each time he left (for all the good that does, which isn't much. Most parties won't accept a general power of attorney these days for any material transaction). Before he went to Iraq he had a new will drawn up. Our children are grown now, and our assets have multiplied over the years. The simple will we've had in place for years wasn't really applicable anymore.

We even discussed what was to be done in the event he was wounded and - for whatever reason - was in a coma or suffered irreversible brain damage. That was painful enough; we didn't agree on what should be done but I agreed to abide by his wishes. How could I not?

But we never discussed where he would be buried.

We never discussed funeral arrangements.

I think many people assume ample time before deployment for planning and discussion, but many servicemembers keep their spouses in the dark about what arrangements they've made. The days and weeks before a major deployment can be a tense time for families, and not all couples deal with this tension well. Years ago when the Unit was a Lieutenant, I regularly got calls from wives whose husbands hadn't made arrangements to pay the truck payment. These ladies had no idea anything was wrong until someone showed up to repossess the family's only means of transportation. Things get forgotten. Balls are dropped.

Sometimes deployments occur with little or no advance notice.

In our case, the decision on whether or not he would go was up in the air literally until the last minute. During the last few days he worked from 4 a.m. until 10 p.m. on the turnover for his replacement. I barely saw him, and when I did he was exhausted. And we were both walking on eggshells. The last thing either one of us wanted was the usual pre-deployment waterworks and I was determined not to place extra demands on him when he had so much on his mind.

And things rarely go the way we plan. In my dreams, we'd spend a nice evening together before he left: a few steaks, a nice bottle of wine, candlelight and ... well, you know the drill. The reality was that the night before he deployed he got home from work at 11 p.m. His gear was mostly packed, but much of it was spread out over our living room floor, a million piles small and large, each with a neat list of what needed to go in each bag. He literally hadn't been home long enough to finish packing. And as if that weren't enough, a major snowstorm was forecast for the next morning.

So instead of candlelight and roses or even coming home, packing, and getting into bed at a decent hour, we had to pile into the car and drive for an hour to the Dulles Marriott so he wouldn't miss his 9 am flight. Fun, fun, fun.

There was no time for the kind of leisurely discussions people seem to think ought to happen. But it was a good thing we stayed at a hotel the night before. By 8 am the roads were covered in snow and visibility was near zero. I drove home that morning through a blizzard - I'd planned to be back in my own house after dropping him at the airport, but had to pull off the road halfway and spend most of the day with my parents until the roads were passable. Poor Sausage must have thought I'd abandoned him, but he's a Marine Beast so he sucked it up.

Given all the possible ways this policy change could have been implemented, I think we got the best we could expect. But I'm still worried. I keep hearing my mother in law immediately after she lost the love of her life. Each decision set off a new bout of worry: would it have been what her husband wanted? Was she doing the right thing? I hope they get the servicemember preference policy in place quickly.

That is where the decision should rest: with the servicemember. I've been there when a spouse was first told her husband was dead. Twice, actually.

It's not a calm moment - not a time for potentially contentious decisions whose consequences may not become apparent until it's too late. In one case the family began arguing (though fortunately in a supportive way) over the arrangements almost as soon as they'd heard the bad news.

And the oddest thing of all about this is that unless I misunderstand how it is to be implemented, the press won't even get what they really hunger for: that money shot of a cargo plane loaded to the gills with flag draped coffins. If DoD allows the press to photograph the inside of the plane, they're allowing access to all the coffins inside regardless of the wishes of individual families. On the other hand, if the press are to be allowed on the tarmac, how will they prevent them from taking these photos? Hopefully this has been considered, but if it has been taken into account I can't help thinking: we are putting families through this nonsense for what? To give the press something they could always have had - photos of single flag draped coffins?

Will DoD hold the line if the press aren't satisfied with this limited access, or will they throw grieving families under the bus at the first sign of trouble?

Though I'm thankful this policy seems to be carefully thought out, I hope the Department of Defense will stand firm in its stated intention to put military families first.

Posted by Cassandra at April 3, 2009 05:11 AM

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If I had more confidence in this administration to hold the line...

Heh. Line-holding from somebody who's idea of an appropriate gift from the American People to the Queen of England is a frikkin' *iPod*?

Posted by: BillT at April 3, 2009 07:07 AM

Here in my opinion is what is terribly wrong with this policy change:
– The primary next of kin will make the family’s decision regarding media access to dignified transfer operations at Dover;
– Families of deceased service members will be briefed on the option to allow media coverage of the dignified transfer at the time of notification of the member’s death or as soon as possible thereafter;


This should be a decision that has been made PRIOR to deployment! What CNO wants to have to ask the family literally seconds after they have been notified that their warrior has been killed in action that they have to make a decision about media presence? That is insanity, along with the literally dozens of other forms that are thrust in front of the now grieving family.

This policy is assinine and should be revoked and reworked to make the decision one that the servicemember makes PRIOR to deployment.

Gates noted in his one and only visit to Dover [www.thunderrun.us/2009/03/tell-me-mr-gateshow-can-you-lift-ban.html] that it was a very moving experience and now he wants to shred that level decorum by allowing the flash of cameras and the scrambling of paparazzi?

It’s discraceful!

Posted by: David M at April 3, 2009 10:08 AM

Fabulous and thought provoking as ever. I have to agree with David M, that maybe this decision should be made prior to deployment. Gosh, you stirred up a bunch of deployment memories for me.

Posted by: Greta at April 3, 2009 10:41 AM

I was working up a post on this, but ya beat me to it.....0>;~}

This: "-- If the primary next of kin permits media access at Dover, reporters will be given the name, rank, military service and hometown of the "believed to be" casualty. A more complete identification of the deceased service member, including unit, place, date and circumstances of death, will be released following the confirmation of the casualty's identity at the Dover mortuary, and then only 24 hours after the last of the deceased's next of kin have been notified of the loss;" is a major fuster cluck waiting to happen. How exactly is DoD going to make sure that ONLY those who wish their loved ones to be photographed if they don't even know for sure until AFTER they have been removed from the plane and processed at the mortuary?

Posted by: DL Sly at April 3, 2009 11:42 AM

...and the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round...

I have the sinking suspicion that once again the military will be under the bus as a speed bump on the liberal bias road to oblivion.

Posted by: vet66 at April 3, 2009 12:14 PM

From today's Stars and Stripes (Mideast Edition):

"Under the Pentagon's new policy, if a family says no to the media, military reporters also will not document the event.

" 'I really don't think anybody should have a veto over our nation's ability to pay respects to the returning casualties,' said Ralph Begleiter, the University of Delaware professor and former CNN foreign correspondent who filed the lawsuit."

However, in 2005, when Mr. Begleiter's previous FOIA suit forced DoD to release file footage of the transfer cases, Begleiter had the following comment for the press:

"This significant decision by the Pentagon should make it difficult, if not impossible, for any U.S. government in the future to hide the human cost of war from the American people."


I am severely tempted to say something really, really vile about Begleiter's hypocrisy at this point...

Posted by: BillT at April 3, 2009 01:25 PM

"I am severely tempted to say something really, really vile..."

Well, Mr. DeBille, you know that old saying, "If you can't say anything nice....
*pulls another stool into corner*
...come sit next to me."


Posted by: DL Sly at April 3, 2009 01:39 PM

*clambering up on stool*

Can a guy buy a lady a beer in here?

Posted by: BillT at April 3, 2009 02:43 PM

The drinks around here are free. I helped the Itinerant Eskimos write a grant proposal (they needed someone to translate the Pig Latin into Government Pork) to get some of that bail out (of jail) money. In fact, a coupla guys in a black Crown Vic dropped it off not too long ago (Sorry, Mongo)....said it was on their way to check out some guy's trench ....so if you want, the first one can be on me.

Posted by: DL Sly at April 3, 2009 03:28 PM

O.K. Four members of the U.S. military arrive home on their final flight. Three say it's O.K. for the media to cover the transfer. One says "No way in hell." What happens?

Posted by: RonF at April 6, 2009 06:26 PM

Don't hold your breath waiting for DoD to answer that, Ron. I've been asking the same question for a while now.

Posted by: DL Sly at April 6, 2009 07:20 PM