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Keep casket photo ban, vets say

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Veterans groups are adamant -- the flag-draped caskets of fallen troops should not be turned into yet another photo op.

Both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday condemned a proposal to lift restrictions that now prevent the press from photographing caskets as they arrive home from wars overseas.

"There is nothing to discuss. Photographing the caskets containing the remains of men and women who have made the supreme sacrifice on behalf of our country and its freedoms is little short of sacrilege," said David K. Rehbein, national commander of the American Legion.

"The practice would be intrusive and hurtful to the warriors' families. The return of fallen heroes is also a sacred moment for our armed forces," he said. "Our fallen warriors deserve to be honored without compromise and not made the object of a media event or be made vulnerable to exploitation for propagandistic purposes."

Jerry Newberry, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, echoed Mr. Rehbein's sentiments. "We continue to support the ban on photographing caskets out of respect for the dead," he said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered a review of the policy after President Obama noted last week that he would consider some changes. The media ban was first imposed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, primarily to protect the privacy of families gathered at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to receive their loved one's remains.

The policy became a strident political issue in 2004 after stark, unauthorized photos of flag-covered caskets were published by the Seattle Times and on the Internet. The images were obtained from a private defense contractor who snapped pictures on a cargo plane, and through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the U.S. Air Force.

President George W. Bush upheld the ban, though the issue was raised by Democrats who were convinced that Mr. Bush was trying to lessen the impact of war dead during the 2004 presidential campaign.

"The truth is on the line," his campaign rival, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said at the time.

The National Press Photographers Association supports lifting the ban, noting in a Feb. 10 letter to Mr. Obama that it "violates the very principles of free speech and free exchange of ideas for which these very heroes have died."

The New York Times and other newspapers also want the ban rescinded in the name of transparency.

"Newspapers seek to commemorate the war dead by running photos of their often-smiling faces. The country should also see the reality of their coffins," said a Times editorial Feb. 15.

In August, Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, introduced "The Fallen Hero Commemoration Act," which would grant press access to commemoration ceremonies, memorial services and the arrival of caskets to "honor those who have given their lives in defense of our nation."