Military Support Groups Provided Input for Dover Policy Change

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 2, 2009 - A Pentagon working group solicited and obtained input from several military support organizations for 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., a senior U.S. officer said here yesterday.

"There was great appreciation on the parts of the stakeholders that we reached out to them," Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael J. Basla told reporters during a roundtable at the Pentagon.

Basla, the vice director of the Joint Staff's command, control, communications and computer systems directorate, chaired the Pentagon working group that developed recommended guidelines and rules for implementing the new policy, which takes effect April 6.

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.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced his intention to change the policy in February. He tasked Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to set up the working group.

The working group, Basla said, presented its recommendations to Gates on March 11. On March 25, Gates signed a memorandum outlining procedures for the new policy.

In the memorandum, Gates wrote he'd determined 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."

"Our challenge," Basla said, "was to find the right way to implement this policy and preserving, I think, what was the foundation premise ... to take care and preserve the privacy of the family, carry out their wishes, allow media access if they chose to do so, and then in turn, providing some transparency to the public on the dignified transfer process."

The 20-member working group included senior Pentagon representation from the Joint Staff, policy, public affairs, casualty assistance, legal and other areas, Basla said.

The working group reached out to a number of military service-support organizations, Basla said, to include the Gold Star Mothers, Gold Star Wives, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors group, veterans groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, the Military Officers Association, and the services' senior enlisted advisors.

"And, of course, a key element of the working group were the folks at Dover themselves; the folks on the ground that are actually executing the mission and the change in policy," Basla said.

Basla said he'd contacted four military support groups himself.

"And, we received the greatest feedback," Basla said, noting the service-support groups were quizzed on their ideas about how to implement the new policy and their thoughts about media coverage of dignified transfer operations.

The support groups expressed concerns whether "the media will decide which of our heroes they will tell the story about, and which they won't," Basla said, or if there would be regular broadcasts listing the arrival of the fallen at Dover.

The support groups were provided follow-up feedback, Basla said. And, he added, they will be provided a copy of the script that notification officers will use when talking to fallen servicemembers' primary next of kin and are discussing the option of having media access to dignified transfer operations.

"Some families want to be private about this; some families want to tell their story," Basla said, noting "it's a relief" for some families to talk about their lost loved ones.

And again, Basla said, some families and military support groups worry the media will decide which of the fallen servicemembers arriving at Dover "are honored, and which are not."

The working group, Basla said, also looked into whether all families, whether they opted for media coverage at Dover or not, could receive Defense Department-provided imagery of their loved one's dignified transfer. However, he said, existing laws would prevent those who opt out of media coverage from securing such government-provided photography against Freedom of Information Act requests.

Basla said it was "a privilege and an honor" to participate in the working group. All the group's members, he added, "took this job extremely seriously."

The working group, Basla added, sought "to provide the nation with a way to continue to honor [and] respect the dignity of these servicemembers and their service for our country and for our freedom."

In his March 25 memorandum, 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," Gates told reporters during a Feb. 26 Pentagon news conference.

"We ought not to presume to make that decision in their place," Gates added.

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