Much has been made of the Obama administration’s decision to allow press — if the families of the fallen consent — to cover the return of fallen troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
My two cents — changing this policy is a good idea, if only because it gives the public (through the lens of an eager media) to see the seriousness with which the military honors it’s fallen heroes. The Washington Post did an excellent job capturing the scene in it’s coverage today.
Moreover, a friend of mine—who is currently serving in Afghanistan, and served in the Old Guard—gave me the go-ahead to share a portion of his email on the subject. His only stipulation, “keep the focus on the soldiers.” He writes:
The [Washington Post] article quotes soldiers in my home unit, Charlie Company of The Old Guard, about a ceremony known as the Dignified Transfer. Two quoted soldiers — Sergeant Rhett and Specialist Bowers — and I have conducted the ceremony together. During my assignment at The Old Guard, I have participated in the ceremony around 15 times and I agree completely with Sergeant Rhett: with or without press, rain or shine, cold or heat, day or night, the honors we pay to our fallen are deeply respectful, solemn, and unchanging.
Indeed, the article omits other details demonstrating how seriously the military takes the event. Aside from the officer in charge and the Honor Guard, the Army always sends a general to preside at Dover — all in a dedicated Blackhawk helicopter. We drive there in inclement weather, but no matter what, we are always there to give honors to every returning soldier (my team and I once drove 30 hours in advance and stayed overnight to beat an ice storm)…
The ceremony itself is detailed yet simple in its dignity. As The Old Guard officer in charge, I enter the airplane with an advance team and prepare the transfer cases for the ceremony. As the article explains, we replace any flag with the slightest flaw. For multiple cases — in the hardest days of the surge, we sometimes had 10-20 cases per mission — we preposition all but one on a vertical loader and place the last case in the cargo doorway. The general, chaplain, and Honor Guard then enter the airplane, where the chaplain says the prayer and the Honor Guard moves the last case onto the loader. They then deplane and the loader is lowered, at which time the Honor Guard moves the cases to a large hearse. Salutes are rendered any time a case is moving. When all cases are loaded, the hearse departs and the ceremony quietly concludes. (From there, the military continues to honor its fallen as portrayed in the excellent HBO movie, “Taking Chance.”)
I can attest the skill and respectfulness of Sergeant Rhett’s team, which I know they continue to uphold. We should be very proud of them, Charlie Company, and other Old Guard soldiers for performing this physically demanding and emotionally difficult task with the utmost dignity and professionalism. They forge a link in the long chain from the battlefield to the final resting place that fulfills our promise to never leave a buddy behind. The fallen heroes at Dover represent our country’s very best, and they are honored there by our Army’s very best.
And while my inner-cynic knows the policy was changed, in large part, to remove the supposed “secrecy and censorship of the Bush war years,” I truly hope it serves, instead, to demonstrate the honor, sacrifice, and quiet heroism of our troops.
Sadly, the media will quickly lose interest, and the Old Guard (and others) will soon be performing for an audience of few — the only soul that matters, and those who love and respect them.
I hope this, along with the stories of the fallen, are the shared legacy of this policy change.