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The United States Armed Forces  is tasked with doing so much and manages to deliver even more than asked.  It is the only segment of our society that promises to defend the country they love at any cost, even with their life.  Too often this century our country has exacted that promise upon the soil of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Gandhi once said,  "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated".  I would change that to read,  "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its war dead are treated".

There is an impressive list of achievements and advancements made for our military by the Obama administration, but in this post I want to focus on the politics of bringing our war dead home with dignity and respect.

We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it's easy, but when it is hard.

President Barak Obama, Nobel Lecture, Dec. 10, 2009

John and Stacey Holley got the news on November 16, 2005 when they were informed that their only son, Spc Matthew Holley had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.  Shortly following that devastating blow was another when they learned how their son's remains would be treated on his final trip home.  The policy at that time was to afford our fallen troops an active duty military escort who would fly in the passenger cabin of a commercial airline, while the casket would be stowed in the cargo area of the plane.  Upon arrival, the casket would be held until all passengers and their luggage had left the craft and then the airline ground crew would use a forklift to transfer the casket to a wheeled luggage cart and deposit it in a warehouse in a cargo area for the family to retrieve.  Hardly the respect one would expect to be afforded those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Holleys called their congressman, then House Armed Forces Committee Chariman Duncan Hunter, R-California and Senator Barbara Boxer, D-California and arrangements were immediately made for an honor guard from their son's unit at Fort Campbell, Ky to be present and provide a more fitting ceremony for the transfer of their son's remains.  Subsequent pressure from the family led to the 2006 passage of a law that requires the remains of our fallen troops to be flown on a military or a military-contracted aircraft with an escort and upon arrival on U.S. soil, to be assigned an honor guard for a transfer of the remains with the dignity that is most appropriate to the sacrifice of their life for our nation.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

excerpt from The Gettysburg Address
President Abraham Lincoln, November 1863

From WWII through the Panama invasion in 1989, the press had access to the dignified transfer of war casualties at Dover Air Force Base in Deleware.  In January 1991, at the outset of the Gulf War, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney imposed a ban on photographs and media coverage of these images of flag draped caskets. The move, most charged, was politically prompted by this unfortunate incident which took place 13 months earlier.  In fact, those images out of Dover were so powerful that in the 1990s politicians, journalists and generals began employing what they termed the "Dover test" which was an informal gauge of the public's reaction to a war or other military action to determine the level of support.

In February of 2009, President Obama ended the ban after having asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to review the current policy.  Gates proposed a new policy that was consistent with the one used at Arlington National Cemetery.  Families would have the protection of a final say as to allow or not to allow media coverage.  At a press conference, Gates said, "We should not presume to make the decision for the families — we should actually let them make it". Later in the same press conference Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked to describe his feelings during his recent visit to Dover as he studied the policy. His reply was:

Actually, no. I will tell you that it was very difficult.
A few minutes later, another reporter noted that his answer had seemed rather abrupt and pressed him to “help us understand” his reaction, especially since military families might be watching the news conference.

Mr Gates replied:

I will add a sentence or two. I went to the back of the plane by myself and spent time with each of the transfer cases. (long pause) I’ll stop there.
A few weeks later Gates announced that the Pentagon would pay for families to travel to Dover if they want to be present when the body or remains of a loved one is returned.  

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And so it was in the pre-dawn darkness of a cool April morning, that President Obama witnessed the first media approved coverage of the dignified transfer of Army Sgt Dale R. Griffin from Terre Haute, Indiana. I will let the words of a Gold Star Mother speak to the impact of that image and what the denial of a formal dignified transfer at Dover meant to her:

That moment when you see your loved one covered with the American flag being removed from the belly of a plane is one of the most gut wrenching sites [sic] you will ever experience. When my son's body was removed from the plane at San Francisco airport from that US Airways jet that carried him home to California from Dover, I could have crawled inside with Ken's body and never come out.
I was not given the opportunity to witness Ken's "dignified transfer" at Dover AFB in Deleware; in fact, we were discouraged from and not allowed to attend his homecoming.
Lifting the media ban was something that I had been vocal about for nearly 5 years and I will always be grateful that during the first few months of his presidency, Obama changed the media policy at Dover.  I know that some Gold Star families (we, who have lost a loved one who was serving in the military) did not agree with the lifting of the ban, but for those of us who would have wanted to witness this return home and share the images with our country, President Obama gave those families who came after us an opportunity that we did not have.  
President Obama, speaking softly and somewhat haltingly, said this from the White House following his trip to Dover:
It was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day, not only our troops but their families as well. Losses such as these are something that I think about each and every day.

President Barak Obama following his trip to Dover in April 2009.

I will end with something somewhat unrelated, but something that I feel speaks volumes to the character of the man we have as President of the United States.

Fisher House provides, free of charge "comfort homes," built on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers. These homes enable family members to be close to a loved one at the most stressful times - during the hospitalization for an unexpected illness, disease, or injury. There is a Fisher House at Dover as well.  In 2010, President Obama donated $250,000 to Fisher House out of the $1.4 million he received for winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.  

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Originally posted to I Vote for Democrats on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 02:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by IGTNT Advisory Group and J Town.

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