Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Dignified transfer of the Fallen: a solemn movement of respect and honor

This is not a ceremony and not a media event


Defense Secretary Gates decided to open up the return of our combat Fallen to the media. He did this against the recommendations of many significant others who opposed changing the rule, including the families. All right, it's done. Given this decision, I want to be sure people know the solemn and dignified manner in which our forces treat our Fallen on their way home. That they treat them with such respect and honor is heartwarming and a source of great pride. There is no political agenda here. You will see our forces do their very best to care for the remains of our Fallen --- a solemn movement of respect and honor.

By Ed Marek, editor

July 12, 2009


I'll start by saying this has been a tough story to write. I thought I could publish it in early May, and it's already mid-July. It's been a struggle.

Given that Secretary of Defense Gates is allowing media coverage of the return of our Fallen, I want to be sure people know the solemn and dignified manner in which our forces treat our Fallen on their way home. That they treat them with such respect and honor is heartwarming and a source of great pride. As I will show, this starts the nanosecond a comrade is killed in battle, and continues through his burial. The term "Dignified Transfer" applies to one portion of that journey, but in all candor, I like using the term for the entire process.

I want to emphasize one important point before I get going. This is not about whether the wars fought by Americans are right or wrong, or whether they are being fought well or poorly. This report is also not an effort to remind people to not forget those who have Fallen. There is no political agenda here.

Let's get started.

In February 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided to lift a long-held prohibition against press coverage of our returning war dead. He preserved the right for families to decide whether such press coverage would be permitted. At the time, some 64 percent of military families opposed his action. A group of officials the secretary asked to review the policy also opposed his change. Secretary Gates rejected all opposition.


Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gives his remarks with Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a press briefing at the Pentagon, February 26, 2009, during which he announced the reversal of the Bush administration policy prohibiting the photographing of the flag-draped remains of those killed in action. Photo credit: TSgt. Jerry Morrison, USAF. Presented by the US Army.

Gates acknowledged that his advisory group wanted the policy of prohibiting media coverage kept in place, but commented:

“I must say I was never comfortable with it (the prohibition).”

He explained why this way:

“I have decided that the decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at

Dover (Air Force Base-AFB) should be made by those most directly affected -- on an individual basis -- by the families of the Fallen ... We ought not to presume to make that decision in their place.”

Those who opposed lifting the ban did so mostly to preserve privacy and maintain a solemn moment as their loved ones return to the USA. Those arguing in favor of lifting the ban said the public had the right to know and see those deceased returning from war in order for the public to understand the cost of war.

During March 2009, Gates wrote the following:

"We are committed to seeing that America's Fallen heroes are received back to their loved ones and their country with the honor, respect and recognition that they and their families have earned.”

The truth is, Mr. Secretary, our military forces have always done that to the best of their ability. Their doing that has had nothing to do, and still has nothing to do, with media

coverage. Our forces have done this because they are sending their friends and comrades-in-arms home --- they demand that they accomplish this endeavor with honor and respect. It has nothing to do with Pentagon policy.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged as much in March following the Gates decision:

“If it's 2 o'clock in the morning, you (the media) get lighting that is 2 o'clock in the morning-type lighting; if it is raining, it's raining ... 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."

I see no reason to accommodate the media for the dignified transfer process. But, the secretary has ruled and his ruling stands.

Therefore, my purpose in this report is to explain the process. It is at once painful to do so, yet at the same time a source of enormous pride.

I want to emphasize at the outset that many journalists and those unfamiliar with the US military will comment that there is a lot of ritual and symbology involved in the processes I am about to describe. I'll not bicker with that, though that line of thought rubs against my grain.

I would rather say that what is done is done out of deep respect for the Fallen and emerges from the human compulsion to afford the Fallen great dignity. Those who care for the Fallen employ exacting standards, they are serious-minded, they are careful, even when no one is watching, and they become emotional, which they have to suppress until their job is done. At the end of the day, however, what they do is a military operation, a military process --- that assures what they do is done right.

Addendum, December 9, 2009:

While reading the November- December 2009 edition of Airmen's Magazine, I came across a story by Capt. Shannon Collins, USAF, once an enlisted journalist, now a Public Affairs officers at Kunsan AB, ROK. She wrote this:

"In March and April this year, a group of Airmen, Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and civilians floored me with their commitment and the importance of their mission. The men and women who work for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover Air Force Base, Del., will humble you with the reverence they show their mission, ensuring dignity, honor and respect to the Fallen; care, trust and support to the families. These words are more than motto or slogan; they’re a way of life for these military members.

"This is the final stop for military men and women who die overseas, primarily those who sacrifice their lives for our freedom while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I had the distinct honor of going behind the scenes, seeing the process firsthand, watching as the remains of the Fallen were taken through the processes of identification, embalming and shipping. I witnessed the meticulous care of the combined team as they prepared uniforms for the Fallen heroes to wear home and spent hours cleaning a simple dog tag that will be returned to the grieving family. I also had the solemn honor of serving on one of the dignified transfer teams; helping carry the transfer case of one of our Fallen from the aircraft to the transfer vehicle.

"A truly humbling experience was being there when the remains of Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers came through Dover. He died April 4 near Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from wounds suffered after an improvised explosive device was detonated.

"It was the first time since 1991 that family members were allowed to attend the dignified transfer and, with the approval of the family, the first that media were allowed to cover.

"More than 80 international media representatives were there, but only the quiet click of the cameras could be heard. Some of us cried openly but many held tight, silent tears falling, as the transfer took place.

"Sergeant Myers’ family stood on the other side of a bus, and all I could see was their feet and shadows. I just kept thinking about what they must be going through and watching their shadows shake before popping to attention.

"The AFMAOC military members who deal with this each and every day, who focus on their mission, spending hours processing remains or cleaning potential heirlooms, have my respect. I’ve laughed with them; I’ve cried with them. I’m awed with what they do and how much commitment they give to their mission.

"I have to admit, like them, it was hard to be there, but since I’ve left, I feel like I need to go back, to help serve the Fallen and their families. I’m truly blessed to have been a witness."


The Battlefield Fallen

The Mortuary Affairs Operation Center at Dover and the Dignified Transfer of the Fallen