New Pentagon policy adds poignancy to Memorial Day

Families can now witness the return to the US of the remains of service members killed in action, according to a six-week-old rule. For many, it is an important rite.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP
US soldiers pay respects to several fallen comrades, including 1st Lt. Roslyn 'Roz' Schulte, during a Memorial Day observance ceremony at Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan.

It is 1 a.m. and nearly dark on the flight line but for the spray of pinkish light that shines at the open door of a cargo plane.

The flag-covered box inside looks like every other one that has come through here. But the family standing in the plane's shadows soon recognizes it as their box. It carries the remains of 1st Lt. Roslyn 'Roz' Schulte, the spirited young Air Force officer who showed such promise, killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan Wednesday. As the box is taken to a waiting truck, the family quietly mourns, grateful at least to be here.

Until recently, the Schultes would have found it difficult to come. Nor could they have invited the media to share their daughter¹s sacrifice with a grateful nation. Six weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates overturned a Gulf War-era policy that discouraged families and barred the media from witnessing the return of America¹s war dead. The elder President Bush instituted the ban in the belief that pictures of casualties would turn public opinion against the war effort. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The original story mischaracterized the Pentagon's previous policy on whether families could visit Dover to witness transfers.]

Yet on Memorial Day, the change in policy has particular poignancy. For many families who have had loved ones killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, coming to Dover – and inviting the media to witness their grief – has appeared to be in tune with their wishes. Since the policy change, the remains of 42 service members killed in action have come through Dover as of Thursday; 35 families have accepted the offer to be there, and 30 of those have requested media to attend, as well.

"I wanted people to share and understand my grief," says Karen Meredith, the mother of Ken Ballard, a lieutenant killed in Iraq in 2004.

Ms. Meredith was notified of her son's death on Memorial Day that year and fought the previous policy in the attempt to obtain a photograph of her son's remains being transferred at Dover – an image she never received and may not exist.

"A lot of people make the argument that it's political to show it, but I just think it was political not to show it," she says.

The transfers pointedly lack the kind of pomp and circumstance for which the military has such fondness. Instead, they are nearly silent observances of what amounts to little more than a somber logistical task. There are no horns or speeches, just the synchronized marching of the eight-man crew charged with moving the box from the plane to the waiting truck.

The Schulte family was informed of their daughter's death Thursday when three men in uniform showed up at their suburban St. Louis home just before 7 a.m. Eighteen hours later, they were on the darkened tarmac at Dover, the Pentagon having paid for their trip, in accordance with the new policy.

Schulte, a 2006 Air Force Academy grad, was the first female academy graduate who has died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Though she entered the Air Force to become a fighter pilot, she opted to become a military-intelligence analyst instead. She was killed while helping the Afghan security forces develop their own intelligence capabilities.

At a Senate hearing Thursday, family friend Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri joked about the "bossy young woman" and all-American lacrosse player, saying, "She was an incredible young lady."

The change in policy at Dover is still a matter of heated debate among many service members and their families. But in giving families the choice, Secretary Gates sought a middle ground. Officials here say the policy has gone well, and most families appreciate the opportunity to witness the transfer.

Ami Neiberger-Miller's brother, Chris, was also killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007. Ms. Neiberger-Miller now helps other military families as a spokesperson for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a Washington-based group that worked with the Pentagon as it formulated its new policy at Dover.

"Some people need and want and desire that level of privacy, and other people want to show the world how America honors the person they love," she says.

The state of the economy and the drop in casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan have made the distant wars even more remote to many Americans. But for Meredith, the importance of her son's sacrifices – as well as her own – never fade.

"This is my life, and I have to think about it every minute of every day," she says. "More people should understand it."

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