WASHINGTON — A single red rose in hand, Karen Meredith leans over her son's simple white stone marker at Arlington National Cemetery.
Tears fall before words.
It's her first visit since she buried 1st Lt. Kenneth Michael Ballard, a fourth generation soldier, last fall.
Still fresh, like the soil churned behind her son's grave for another row of dead, is her anger. Anger at the way the Pentagon refused her sole wish when her son was killed by a sniper last May to photograph his casket returning from Iraq.
Meredith wanted to capture the way fellow soldiers respectfully draped the American flag across the casket, tucking the sides just so, and the way an honor guard watched over him as he was unloaded from a cargo plane.
But the Pentagon firmly said "no." It was against regulations and would violate the privacy of family members of other slain soldiers.
"It's dishonorable and disrespectful to the families," said Meredith. "They say it's for privacy, but it's really because they don't want the country to see how many people are coming back in caskets."
The Pentagon's reasons for denying the media access to the caskets returning to Dover Air Force Base are widely reported and legally contested. What isn't so well known is that the Pentagon refuses to allow the families of dead soldiers access to the caskets returning to Dover and other military bases.
"It's bad enough that they won't let the country see the pictures of the caskets, but a grieving mother?" asked Meredith. "It's unforgiveable after what I lost."
The Department of Defense defends its policy, which was created in 1991 by then-secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. The policy protects the privacy of families who have lost loved ones in the war and who may not want their son or daughter's casket inadvertently photographed, said Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Defense Department spokesperson.
What families of dead soldiers really want is "the expeditious return of their remains," not photographs at Dover, Venable said.
The department strongly discourages family members from coming to Dover to watch the caskets of the dead unload. "It's a tarmac, not a parade ground," Venable said. The caskets arriving at Dover are similar to the "hearse pulling up to the back of a funeral home," he said.
Meredith says she was prepared to lose her son in battle. What she wasn't prepared for was the way the military treated her when he died from a sniper's bullet in the head. She doesn't understand how a single photograph of his casket for her own personal album would violate her own privacy.
"It is ironic that this policy denies us the very freedoms of the press and speech my son — and so many like him — gave their lives to protect," Meredith says.
Some families think the caskets should be photographed. Some families say they shouldn't. There is no consensus on this point, said Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization with 30,000 members.
The organization does not have an official opinion about requests like Meredith's, but Raezer believes from her conversations with families who have lost a loved one that most would support allowing the family of a dead soldier to have a photograph. She suggests that the military take the photo when the casket arrives and include it in the materials they routinely give to families when there is a loss.
"There is a difference between taking photos and showing it to the world every time a plane comes to Dover and taking a photo for a personal memento for the family," Raezer said.
Open government advocates are rallying behind Meredith and other family members who want to see photos of their loved ones at Dover. They view this as another attempt by the Bush administration to keep the actions of the government secret. They suspect that the ban is to prevent the public from getting too upset about the war in Iraq.
"I think it's a atrocious that they won't allow photos," said Rick Blum, executive director of Openthegovernment.org, an umbrella organization of conservative and liberal organizations concerned about excessive secrecy in government. "The pictures show the true cost of war and the honor and the respect that the military gives to their sacrifice."
Other open government advocates suspect that there may be political reasons for denying the public access to photograph the caskets.
"The policy keeps these remarkable images off the front pages and off television as if out of sight could mean out of mind," said Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, a nonpartisan research institute based in Washington. "The policy disguises this steady, mounting toll."
The Pentagon's policy of banning photos at Dover is being challenged in federal court by Ralph Begleiter, a journalism professor from the University of Delaware.
Begleiter has requested all still and moving images of fallen soldiers returning in caskets dating back to October 2001 when the war in Afghanistan started. He filed his request under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law that requires agencies to make records and materials available to the public, with the support of the National Security Archive.
"This is not a partisan political issue," said Begleiter in a release about his lawsuit posted on the Internet. "It's all about allowing the American people to accurately and completely assess the price of war." The case is still pending.
Venable, the Pentagon spokesperson, said there have only been two instances where the department has permitted photographs of caskets since the policy was put in place in 1991.
In 1996, Clinton personally oversaw the return of 33 caskets containing the remains from Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's plane crash in Croatia. In 2000, the Pentagon allowed photos of caskets from the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
The National Security Archive keeps its own tally of examples where the images of caskets were released to the public.
The organization cites eight other examples where photos of caskets arriving at military bases were allowed, including the return of Americans killed in the 1998 al-Qaida terrorist bombing in East Africa; the caskets of six dead soldiers who died in a training accident in Kuwait in March 2001 were photographed at Ramstein Air Base; and in September 2001, the the Air Force published a photograph of the casket carrying the remains of a victim of the al-Qaida attacks on the Pentagon.
Exceptions to the rule stopped when the war in Iraq began.
On the Web:
1st Lt. Kenneth Michael Ballard: www.ltkenballard.com
National Security Archive at George Washington University: www.gwu.edu/(tilde)nsarchiv
Rebecca Carr's e-mail address is rcarr(at)coxnews.com
March 24, 2005By Rebeccaa Carr Cox News Service