Dover, Behind The Scenes

The Pentagon’s new consent-to-cover policy.

On February 26, when secretary Robert Gates announced that the Defense Department would develop procedures to allow media access to the arrival of soldiers’ bodies at Dover Air Force Base’s mortuary facilities, it set a breakneck procedural review into motion.

The results came last night, when over thirty staffers from some two dozen news organizations were welcomed onto the base, where they filmed, photographed, and observed the arrival of Air Force Staff Sergeant Philip Myers, a Bronze Star recipient killed in Afghanistan on Saturday by an IED.

It was the first time in over 18-years where the press was allowed as a matter of routine policy to witness and report upon the stateside return of a deceased soldier. Media organizations, transparency advocates, and some military families had long voiced criticism of the government’s decision to ban access, reached just before the Gulf War, arguing that the restrictions hid the full human cost of military action.

In the six weeks between last night and Gates’s announcement, an interservice working group led by Air Force Major General Michael Basla of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met to hammer out the many details, according to Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, who joined some of the group’s later discussions. The group sought input from media organizations and from family and veterans groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Gold Star Mothers. On March 25, one month after Gates tasked the working group, he signed the department’s new policy and instructed the military to have it in place by Monday, April 6.

The group resolved one of the thorniest policy questions—who, exactly, would grant or deny consent for access—by placing the family’s decision in the hands of the primary next of kin, a person designated by the soldier. In the future, according to Melnyk, service members will be asked to decide for themselves, pre-deployment, if in the event of their death they would like their ceremony to be open to the press. But for now, there isn’t a lot of time for the next of kin to make their decision. Soldiers’ bodies are usually scheduled to arrive at Dover about twenty-four to thirty-six hours after death.

Casualty officers try to deliver their fateful knock on the door within six hours of death. With the new policy, two new questions have been added to their standard notification script: Will the next of kin consent to coverage of their loved one’s stateside arrival, and would they and two other family members like to travel (at the government’s expense) to witness the ceremony?

The tight timeline requires that the questions be asked in the same conversation where the family is informed of the death. “It’s the only way we can do it and give the media time to get to Dover,” says Melnyk.

If the next of kin consents to access, the DoD will tape and photograph the ceremony with their own cameras, and provide copies to the family. The Air Force’s casualty script notes that the video will likely be available to any requester under the Freedom of Information Act.

On Friday, the Pentagon announced that news organizations wishing to cover the ceremonies should contact the Dover mortuary and ask to be put on an e-mail contact list. When a family grants access, the military will contact this list about eight hours before the plane’s arrival—not much longer than the flight time from Ramstein Air Force base in Germany, through which most casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are routed.

After arriving at Dover, the deceased’s family will be asked if they consent to be photographed and filmed by the media on the tarmac while watching the transfer, and, separately, if they’d like to be made available for off-base interviews after the ceremony.

The base’s notification list, in existence only since Friday, already has 150 organizations from across the country, along with some international outlets, according to Air Force Captain Mike Andrews, a public affairs officer temporarily detailed to Dover for the early days of the policy. Last night, he said, the base reached its maximum accommodation with thirty-five journalists.

“We did have to turn a few away,” says Andrews. “It gets pretty tight out there on the flight line.”

One of the reporters was Randall Chase, the Associated Press’s Delaware correspondent.

“The Air Force had a bus waiting for us at a former shopping center” near the base, says Chase. Before boarding, journalists were required to sign an eleven-point ground rules document, which instructs them, among other points, to perform all necessary movement “in a slow and dignified manner,” under penalty of possible removal and future banning.

They were then driven to the briefing room of the 3rd Airlift Squadron, a few hundred yards away from the flight line media area, where camera equipment and baggage were inspected while the journalists watched a five- to ten-minute PowerPoint briefing on procedures. The standard briefing includes information on the blocking of the ceremony, in order to help photographers and videographers plan their shots, according to Andrews.

To prevent unauthorized photography of the family, the media was bussed to the field, and placed behind a rope line just to the left of the family area. Only then did the mini-bus like vehicle carrying the family arrive. It parked right alongside the press, and the family exited through a door on the far side of the bus, obstructing the press’s view.

“It didn’t matter much because anyone who even thought about taking a picture of the family would have been kicked out,” says Chase. In order to maintain a solemn atmosphere, photographers are not allowed to use flashes. For now, live transmissions of the event are also banned, although that policy is under reconsideration, according to Andrews.

The Associated Press and others had been concerned about how the military would grant access if multiple bodies arrived on the same flight and not all of their families offered consent.

Last night offered an example of that situation. Secretary Gates, when he signed the memo in late march, instructed the military to prepare to enact the policy by April 6. On Saturday, when Sgt. Myers died, the military anticipated that the flight carrying his body would arrive around 11:45 Monday morning, the day the policy was to go into effect.

Due to the vagaries of military transport plane schedules, Myers’s body arrived over twelve hours earlier, on the same flight as another deceased Army soldier, whose family had not been asked if they would consent to access. And so the Army soldier’s transfer ceremony went unwitnessed by the press. According to Andrews, there is usually a fifteen-minute pause between each ceremony, during which the press can be brought out, as it was last night.

“That’s how it’s going to work in the future,” according to Andrews.

Last night’s ceremony was a landmark occasion. But now that the ceremonies are likely to be open so often, there’s little guarantee that the press will regularly come out in such force.

“Now that the families are giving their consent, will the media care?” asks Melnyk, who worries that families who consent to coverage, but see no journalists at their loved one’s arrival, may get the impression that the nation does not appreciate their loss. “It ain’t going to be news in a month.”

The military has no plans to routinely release its photos and videos of the ceremony, even if they are accessible under FOIA. “The reason we’re going to have those photographers is for the family only,” says Andrews. “I don’t think we’re going to be posting these.”

One thing that might draw the press are occasions when the family will consent to photography of their reactions at the ceremony, or to interviews afterwards. But the military doesn’t plan on asking the family about that level of access until they arrive at Dover, making it impossible for the press to know what level of access they’ll have before arriving at the base.

“In the short term, we plan to be there, at least for photo coverage,” says the Associated Press’s Chase.

While the new policy means that some ceremonies will be open, it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be seen.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.