NEWS | April 8, 2009

Gates signs policy for dignified transfer operations

By Gerry J. Gilmore American Forces Press Service

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has approved a policy change that, under strictly delineated conditions, allows media filming of dignified transfer operations of fallen servicemembers' remains at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

The new policy is slated to be implemented April 6, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. If immediate family members consent to media coverage, Mr. Whitman said, reporters would be provided the basic information on the servicemember and the expected time of arrival of the flight bearing the remains.

"The core of the policy," he said, "is built around the desires of the family members, and it will be the families that decide whether or not media have access to any of these dignified transfers."

Dover's Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs is the Defense Department's largest joint-service mortuary facility, and the only one in the continental United States. Dover also is the U.S. military's largest air terminal. Media photography or filming of dignified transfers at Dover was prohibited under the previous policy.

In a March 25 memorandum that outlines procedures for the new policy, Secretary Gates wrote he had determined on Feb. 27 "that the (Defense Department) policy governing media access to the dignified transfer of fallen servicemembers at Dover Air Force Base would be modified to allow media access, when approved by the immediate families of the individual fallen."

Secretary Gates announced last month that he would change the policy that had prohibited news organizations from filming dignified transfer operations at Dover.

"We are committed to seeing that America's fallen heroes are received back to their loved ones and their country with the honor, respect and recognition that they and their families have earned," he said at a March 18 news conference.

Media with family consent to cover dignified transfer operations at Dover will be required to conduct themselves in a respectful, quiet manner so as not to disturb the solemnity of the occasion, Mr. Whitman said. That concern, he added, also requires filming and photography using only ambient light and sound.

"So, if it's 2 o'clock in the morning, you get lighting that is 2 o'clock in the morning-type lighting; if it is raining, it's raining," Mr. Whitman said. "We are not changing the dignified transfer process to accommodate media. What we are doing is accommodating the media to cover the existing dignified transfer process."

Media with family approval to cover Dover dignified transfers would be placed in an area behind the families, Mr. Whitman said, noting that the families aren't to be filmed or interviewed as they observe transfer operations. Families who agree to be interviewed by media after the transfer operations could do so, he said, but only in a specified area away from the tarmac.

Mr. Whitman pointed out that the remains of fallen servicemembers are transported to Dover around the clock in an expeditious manner. When the new policy takes effect, he said, Dover AFB public affairs personnel will post to the base's Web site that a dignified transfer approved for media coverage by the fallen servicemember's family is to take place, along with the time and some other particulars. The media, Mr. Whitman continued, also may opt to subscribe to an e-mail notification system that would provide similar information.

Military photographers will take photographs of dignified transfer operations to provide to families who approve media coverage, Mr. Whitman said.

Each dignified transfer operation takes about 15 minutes to complete, Mr. Whitman explained. Dover public affairs personnel, he said, would assist media to gain access onto the installation, provide briefings and take them to the flight line.

Secretary Gates had tasked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen to set up a working group to develop recommended guidelines and rules for implementing the new policy. Maj. Gen. Michael J. Basla chaired the group, which consulted with service-support organizations such as the Gold Star Mothers, Gold Star Wives, veterans groups and senior enlisted advisors.

Family members consulted by the working group seemed split on the issue, General Basla recalled, noting some expressed concern about media coverage of dignified transfer operations at Dover, while others appeared to welcome it.

In his memorandum, Secretary Gates thanked the working group for its efforts and commended its "very thorough review" of the policy.

Decisions regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should "be made by those most directly affected, on an individual basis, by the families of the fallen," Secretary Gates told reporters during a Feb. 26 Pentagon news conference. "We ought not to presume to make that decision in their place."

Per the memorandum, the following actions are to be taken in conjunction with implementation of the new policy:

-- The undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and other Pentagon elements will revise defense regulatory documents to reflect the new policy at Dover;

-- Deceased servicemembers' remains will be transferred from the combat theater of operations to the Dover facility as soon as possible;

-- The primary next of kin will make the family's decision regarding media access to dignified transfer operations at Dover;

-- Families of deceased servicemembers will be briefed on the option to allow media coverage of the dignified transfer at the time of notification of the member's death or as soon as possible thereafter;

-- If the primary next of kin permits media access at Dover, reporters will be given the name, rank, military service and hometown of the "believed to be" casualty. A more complete identification of the deceased servicemember, including unit, place, date and circumstances of death, will be released following the confirmation of the casualty's identity at the Dover mortuary, and then only 24 hours after the last of the deceased's next of kin have been notified of the loss; and

-- Primary next of kin and two other family members may travel to Dover at department expense to observe the dignified transfer operation. The services may fund the travel of additional family members on a case-by-case basis.

The secretary's memorandum also directed the development of a long-term plan to obtain the preference of individual servicemembers regarding media access to dignified transfers should they become a casualty while on active duty.

On March 17, Secretary Gates made an unannounced evening visit to Dover to observe the dignified transfer operations there. The trip to Dover "was a very moving experience" for Secretary Gates, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters the day after the secretary's trip.