New Law Changes Handling Procedures for Troops’ Remains

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 10, 2007 – A new law that took effect Jan. 1 changes the way the remains of servicemembers killed in combat are transported and handled.

The 2007 National Defense Authorization Act states that the primary mode of transportation for remains of servicemembers being returned to the U.S. is military aircraft or military-contracted aircraft. This is a change from the past, when commercial service was used to transport the remains of fallen troops.

“It was a provision in the law, and I think … there was some interest to make sure that the remains were moved in an expeditious manner,” Air Force Col. Michael Pachuta, director of morale, welfare and recreation policy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said in an interview.

Every servicemember who dies in a theater of combat is transported by military aircraft to Dover Air Force Base, Del., for processing and burial preparation, Pachuta explained. This law changes the way the remains are transported from Dover to their place of burial.

In a memorandum to senior military leaders, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England wrote that this change is to ensure the transportation of fallen servicemembers is given priority. England instructed the military services and departments to work together to ensure air transportation arrangements are handled properly and efficiently.

The law also directs that an honor guard escorts servicemembers’ remains from Dover to their final resting place. The servicemember’s next of kin can request that commercial air transportation be used for the remains, or that the honor guard not escort the remains, Pachuta said.

Another recent change that is giving more recognition to the remains of fallen servicemembers is the use of honor covers on coffins, Pachuta said. The honor cover is a reinforced cardboard cover that fits on top of the airline industry’s standard air tray for coffins. The cover is embossed with an American flag, and the Defense Department seal on both ends.

The idea for the honor covers, which the Army has been using since October, came from feedback from family members and military members who had escorted remains, Pachuta said. “Our intent certainly is to make sure that those handling the remains along the way understand that this is a fallen servicemember and certainly should be handled expeditiously but also with care and respect,” he said.

The Army designed the honor covers in cooperation with the Air Transport Association, so they are standardized throughout the airline industry, Pachuta said. The covers are not used more than once and are treated to make them waterproof. When the remains reach their final destination, the honor cover is removed and an American flag is placed over the coffin, he said.