Mortuary media coverage continues 5 years after ban lifted

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Public Affairs
This article is the first in a series of three about how the mortuary mission has changed since 2009. This article highlights the media coverage of dignified transfers. The second article will be about how support for families traveling to Dover has expanded and the final article will explain how mortuary operations have evolved.

It's been more than five years since the media policy changed to allow coverage of dignified transfers of the fallen at Dover Force Base, Del.

On April 5, 2009, Tech. Sgt. Phillip Myers was the first fallen hero whose dignified transfer was photographed and televised putting an end to a more than 20-year ban.

More than 30 media outlets traveled to Dover to cover the return of this fallen hero who was killed as a result of an improvised explosive device. The coverage reminded Americans of the true cost of war.

No one knew what to expect when the media coverage began.
Media in attendance sign ground rules each and every time they come to Dover to cover a dignified transfer. These rules prohibit them from making sudden movements, using flash photography and photographing families. They exist as part of an effort to respect the privacy of families of the fallen.

"I was pleasantly surprised to see the reverence and focus on each individual," said Trevor Dean, an Air Force entitlements director with Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations.

Many in the media not only covered the return of Myers to American soil, but directed their attention to the change in policy by the DOD regarding the media coverage of dignified transfers.
Since that day Myers arrived at Dover AFB in 2009, 1,823 service members have been killed in action. Of those, 1,027 dignified transfers have been open to the media.

"At the beginning, just about all of the news agencies came out to document the first dignified after the policy change," said Roland Balik, a photographer with the 436th Airlift Wing public affairs office. "There were well over 30 reporters, photographers and videographers in the media pool including myself when I was a contractor working in the photo lab."

Balik and Jason Minto were base photographers as part of the contract and together set the standard for DT photography. Minto captured the media interest that first day and Balik was charged with taking photos that would be presented to the family.

"I knew the first dignified transfer was going to be a big event, so it made me use every bit of my photographic knowledge and then some to capture the best set of images for this 'no fail' mission," said Balik. "I really didn't know what to expect ... I unknowingly established the standard shots to be captured while photographing a DT."

To date, Balik has photographed 806 dignified transfers, while Minto captured 333 during his time with the 436th AW. There have been nine civilian photographers and one military photographer capturing photos for the families requesting Department of Defense coverage since 2009.

That standard, created by Balik and Minto, hasn't changed since the first DT was photographed in 2009.

"Our mindset and focus was to provide the best set of images for the family in a timely manner," said Balik. "I know that the images I have taken during a DT will be some of the last images taken of their husband, wife, mother, father, son or daughter. Some of them I know will be for a child who will never meet their father, uncle, brother or cousin - it's a fact of war."

The DOD photographers haven't been alone in capturing this solemn moment. Balik has established a relationship with two of the Associated Press photographers, Steve Ruark and Jose Luis Magana, who have routinely covered dignified transfers alongside him. In the beginning, he saw them at least once a week.

While public media coverage dropped after the first month of the policy reversal, the AP has continued to send a photographer for every dignified transfer open to media, allowing media outlets across the country to recognize and honor their hometown heroes even if they can't attend the transfer.

Ruark didn't choose to photograph the dignified transfers initially although he was aware the policy changed and recognized the importance of the opportunity to document this aspect of war.

As a freelance photographer, the Associated Press is one of Ruark's clients. He received the first call to cover the dignified transfer mission at Dover in early May 2009.
Ruark came to Dover to photograph the dignified transfer of Army Spc. Shawn D. Sykes May 8, 2009, on his first day back to work following the birth of his daughter. He remembers it vividly because it is linked to his daughter's age - a thought-provoking connection of life and death.

"I remember being unsure of where to go and what, exactly, was going to happen," Ruark said of his first trip to Dover to photograph the dignified transfer for the Associated Press.

He's covered the return of more than 500 fallen service members since then and although more experienced now, when he knows it's someone else's first time, he remembers how anxious he felt when he first started coming.

"Believe me, too, that just as I think I am relaxed, an experience like hearing the cry of a loved one on the flight line will jolt me back to the reality of the situation I am photographing," said Ruark.

While each transfer is significant, times like those or ones he's covered that have more of a personal connection stick with him. When Army Spc. Christopher Coffland arrived at Dover Nov. 15, 2009, it hit close to home. Although Coffland was older than Ruark, he graduated from the same small high school, which graduates approximately 105 seniors a year.

Another that stands out for Ruark was a stormy night in September 2010.

"It was rainy and windy and just downright terrible," said Ruark. "The photos definitely stand out because of the rain. I do not remember if family attended but I can only imagine how awful it must be to stand in driving rain and wait for one's loved one to be carried off an aircraft in a transfer case.

"Luckily the pace has slowed considerably," Ruark said.

Ruark said at times in the summer he would receive an e-mail notification of another dignified transfer as soon as he arrived back home to Maryland. 

That occasion of multiple transfers during a short period of time is something Balik is also familiar with. More than once, he covered three dignified transfers in a 24-hour period as a DOD photographer.

The Air Force retiree also has transfers that resonate with him. One, said Balik, was photographing a fallen hero on what would have been his 21st birthday. The closest to home was the grandson of his mother's neighbor, and seeing them after they had known he took the photos.

"It was my first witness to see the aftermath of death from a war and the long-lasting affects it has on everybody," said Balik.

It's come a long way since that first dignified transfer open to media. On occasion, there may be additional media outlets depending on the nature of the incident, but there will always be at least two photographers at a dignified transfer open to media - one photographer who represents the DOD and the other from the AP.

The two men share the flightline honoring the nation's fallen, each capturing the moment flag-draped cases are taken off the aircraft and placed in a transfer vehicle, before  making their way to the mortuary -- images that remind the nation of the true cost of war.