As a dead hero returns, a nation watches

Sunday marked the first time in nearly 20 years that the American people have seen their fallen soldiers come home.

At 11 p.m. the evening is serene, save for the hum of the Atlas Air 747âÄôs engine. Then the clicks of camera shutters add to the sound of the engine. Flashes are not set off, though. From an opening at the top of the plane, eight soldiers accompany a metal coffin covered in the flag of our country. With both precision and touch, their white gloves grasp the box and lift it. Their comrade is coming home. The soldiers stoop quickly, then stand. Holding their posture, the men and women carefully calculate their gait in perfect time and with perfect steps. As they reach the end of the lift, the coffin is set down and the machine lowers it to the ground where it continues its journey to a waiting truck. The soundtrack of shutters tapers off. Late last week, the Obama administration lifted an 18-year-old ban on media coverage of the arrival of dead soldiers. By dawn, journalists waited at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to cover the arrival of Sgt. Phillip Myers, 30, who was killed in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan. Because of new policy, Sgt. Myers is also a soldier who many ordinary citizens will remember. The photos of his arrival are the first to detail the homecoming of a fallen U.S. soldier in nearly 20 years. Sgt. MyersâÄô wife consented to the media coverage. For 15 minutes, just after 11 p.m. on Sunday night, 25 journalists and photographers witnessed the solemn event at Dover Air Force Base. Though the family refused interviews and stood away from the lenses of the photographers on the opposite side of a waiting van, they wished respect and remembrance for their hero, believing the American people should know the detailed rituals granted to all who fall in duty.

Though the new policy became effective on April 6, 2009, enough plans were in place for the first covered transfer to happen on Sunday evening. According to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, per the new policy, media will be notified of and permitted to view transfers when the family consents to such coverage. The notification of dignified transfers is sent via e-mail as promptly as possible to the media. Due to the expedited return of casualties from overseas and the requirement to gain family consent for media coverage, notification may often be on short notice, at all times of the day or night. The notification e-mail will include the date and time of the dignified transfer, the time and location media representatives will be required to meet with the public affairs officer to be escorted onto Dover Air Force Base, as well as the identification of the deceased service member to include name, rank, military service, hometown and theater where death occurred. Journalists must register to attend these transfers, and are not permitted onto the grounds without consent from the family of the deceased. The rules also banned flashes, live broadcasts, interviews with military personnel and âÄúunnecessary noise or movement.âÄù Photographers who were there say everyone followed the rules. With the transfers taking place at all hours in all weather, the focus, then, becomes about bearing witness âÄî one of the mediaâÄôs most traditional jobs. Though media are now allowed on the scene, the dignified ritual of bringing fallen soldiers home will not change because of their presence. The public is now able to see some of the realities of this war. Indeed, the new coverage is a way not only to mourn, but to help make tragedy real. The scene of Sgt. Myers is a reminder of the war we often forget about. With media coverage, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are suddenly not some distant event happening in a faraway place we will probably never see in our lifetimes. Save for the families and friends of soldiers with whom we are familiar, we go throughout our day-to-day routine as others travel day to day through another kind of routine. Because families of the deceased are able to consent to the media coverage, we can certainly say that coverage is not disrespectful. Rather, it is a reminder of the conflicts we have been fighting these past years. People believe things when they see them, and I believe media coverage can function very much in this way. This is the first time since the war in AfghanistanâÄôs beginning in 2001 that the American people have seen their fallen soldiers come home. Yet that ritual has taken place for nearly 5,000 families with service members in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in these last years. Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]