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Pentagon ending ban on photos of coffins

Fri., Feb. 27, 2009

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has decided to rescind a long-standing prohibition against media coverage of returning war dead, allowing families to say whether news organizations may photograph the arrivals, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

All U.S. service members killed overseas are flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. But photographs have been prohibited since 1991. George W. Bush’s administration rigorously enforced the ban, preventing pictures of troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan from appearing in news coverage.

The new plan will leave it up to the families of slain service members to decide whether to allow the media to photograph their return to Dover.

“My conclusion was, we should not presume to make the decision for the families. We should actually let them make it,” Gates said.

Some veteran and family groups favored keeping the ban in place and others wanted to give families the option of allowing the media in, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Families Association.

“We are hoping whatever comes out of this new policy accommodates a variety of wishes,” she said.

Gates has assigned a group of Pentagon officials to work out details. Unanswered questions include what to do if a flight is carrying remains of several service members and families are divided over access, or what services will be provided for those who want to be present.

If Dover is opened to families meeting arriving flights, Raezer said the military needs to be prepared to help with chaplains, counselors and lodging.

“If they are going to open it up to families, do they have the capability of assisting those families?” she said.

Military Families United said a survey of military families showed that 84 percent opposed changing the policy.

“We are pretty disappointed in the president’s decision to overturn the ban,” said John Ellsworth, the group’s president, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004. “This is a complete disregard for the will of America’s military families and their need for privacy during this solemn moment.”

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