Return of Our Fallen

George Washington University

Return of Our Fallen

For More Information Contact:
Ralph Begleiter, University of Delaware (302) 831-2687
Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel, National Security Archive (202) 994-7000
Thomas Blanton, Director, National Security Archive (202) 994-7000
Daniel Mach, Counsel, Jenner & Block (202) 637-6313

Washington, D.C., April 28, 2005 – In response to Freedom of Information Act requests and a lawsuit, the Pentagon this week released hundreds of previously secret images of casualties returning to honor guard ceremonies from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and other conflicts, confirming that images of their flag-draped coffins are rightfully part of the public record, despite its earlier insistence that such images should be kept secret.

One year after the start of a series of Freedom of Information Act requests filed by University of Delaware Professor Ralph Begleiter with the assistance of the National Security Archive, and six months after a lawsuit charging the Pentagon with failing to comply with the Act, the Pentagon made public more than 700 images of the return of American casualties to Dover Air Force Base and other U.S. military facilities, where the fallen troops received honor guard ceremonies. The Pentagon officially refers to the photos as “images of the memorial and arrival ceremonies for deceased military personnel arriving from overseas.” Many of the images show evidence of censorship, which the Pentagon says is intended to conceal identifiable personal information of military personnel involved in the homecoming ceremonies.

Begleiter’s lawsuit is supported by the National Security Archive and the Washington, D.C. office of the law firm Jenner & Block. “This is an important victory for the American people, for the families of troops killed in the line of duty during wartime, and for the honor of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country,” said Begleiter, a former CNN Washington correspondent who teaches journalism and political science at the University of Delaware. “This significant decision by the Pentagon should make it difficult, if not impossible, for any U.S. government in the future to hide the human cost of war from the American people.”

The Pentagon’s decision preempted a court ruling in the lawsuit by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan. “We are gratified that these important public records were released without the need for further court action,” said Daniel Mach of Jenner & Block. The Pentagon ban on media coverage of returning war casualties was initiated in January 1991 by then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during the administration of President George H. W. Bush, just weeks before the start of the Gulf War against Iraq.

“I have never considered the release of images as a political issue,” said Begleiter, noting that both Republican and Democratic administrations imposed the image ban. “But, seeing the cost of war, like any highly-charged political issue, can have strong political consequences.”

Begleiter’s Freedom of Information Act requests, and the lawsuit, asked for release of both still and video images. The Pentagon’s “final response” in the case includes no video images of the honor ceremonies for returning war casualties. “I’m surprised at this,” said Begleiter, “because the U.S. military uses video and film technology extensively in its public relations efforts.”

Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, which actively uses the Freedom of Information Act to force release of government documents, said, “The government now admits it was wrong to keep these images secret. Hiding the cost of war doesn’t make that cost any less. Banning the photos keeps flag-draped coffins off the evening news, but it fundamentally disrespects those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Blanton and Begleiter noted one major negative consequence of the dispute over the images: the Pentagon appears to have stopped creating the photos in the first place. All the released images containing date information appear to have been taken prior to June 2004. Military officials told Begleiter and the news media that such photos were no longer being taken since his first Freedom of Information Act request was filed in April 2004.

Begleiter said, “Hiding these images from the public – or, worse, failing even to record these respectful moments – deprives all Americans of the opportunity to recognize their contribution to our democracy, and hinders policymakers and historians in the future from making informed judgments about public opinion and war.” He called on the Pentagon to resume fully documenting the return of American casualties.

Although some of the newly released images include dates, locations and other information, the Pentagon censored that information from most of the released images. Some of the censorship, or, as the Pentagon prefers to call it, “redaction,” blacks out faces, identifying features on equipment, and uniform styles. In one case, for example, a clergyman’s identity is censored, while in another image, a different clergyman remains unredacted.

“I cannot imagine that the members of these honor guards want their own faces blacked out from the public homage that is due,” Blanton said. “Honor guard is the most solemn duty for anybody in the military, not something for the censors to hide.”

The photos released by the Pentagon were taken by U.S. government photographers, not by journalists. “There is nothing macabre or ghoulish about these images,” said Begleiter. “These are among the most respectful images created of American casualties of war – far less wrenching than images we regularly see from the battlefield. They’re taken under carefully controlled circumstances by military photographers covering honor ceremonies.”

An initial release of 361 such images was provided by the Pentagon in April, 2004 in response to a Freedom of Information Act appeal by Russ Kick, who maintains the web site The Pentagon later declared that release to have been a mistake and refused to release further images, which prompted Begleiter and the National Security Archive to challenge the policy.
The Freedom of Information Act case was filed in Federal District Court for the District of Columbia [Case No. 1:04-cv-01697 (EGS)].

The newly released images, along with many other details of the Freedom of Information Act case, may be seen at:

Historical note:
The ban on media coverage of returning casualties was imposed by Defense Secretary Cheney after an embarrassing incident in which three television networks broadcast live, split-screen images in December, 1989, as the first U.S. casualties were returning from an American assault on Panama. In that incident, President Bush was seen on television joking at a White House news conference while somber images of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base moved across viewers’ screens. The ban on war casualty images was continued during the Clinton administration, which made several exceptions to allow publication and broadcast upon the return of victims of attacks against U.S. personnel abroad, including the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. President George W. Bush continued the ban following the start of the Afghanistan war in October, 2001 and the Iraq invasion in March, 2003.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry Shelton, coined the phrase “the Dover Test” to describe the impact of images of flag-draped coffins returning from a battlefield to the military mortuary at Dover, potentially affecting public support for a war. Images of casualties have played significant roles in many previous conflicts, beginning with the Civil War in the 1860’s and continuing through World Wars I and II and the Vietnam conflict in the 1960’s. In 1991, President Bush asserted that the U.S. had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” but later in the 1990’s, deployments of U.S. troops in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo were influenced by memories of the images of Vietnam-era casualties.

Chronology of DOD Policy on Images of the Honors Provided to American Casualties
Note: Documents cited below are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Readerto view.

Media reporting of the return of fallen soldiers to the United States and ceremonies honoring American military personnel killed overseas have long figured heavily in the nation’s collective mourning. During the Vietnam War, these images appeared regularly on television and in print news sources. In the 1980’s, as well, media reporting concerning honor rituals and ceremonies for soldiers was commonplace:

  • 1980: President Carter was photographed at Arlington praying over flag-draped coffins bearing the remains of the eight U.S. airmen killed in the aborted rescue of the Tehran Embassy hostages.
  • 1983: President Reagan was present at Andrews AFB for a ceremony for American diplomatic and military personnel killed in the April bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. He was photographed in front of a row of flag-draped coffins bearing the remains of military and diplomatic personnel. Within a few days of the ceremony photographs were provided to the media by the White House.
  • 1985: President Reagan attended a ceremony at Andrews AFB for military personnel killed in El Salvador, pinning purple hearts on their flag-draped caskets. The event was covered by the media.
  • 1989: The media covered ceremonies at Norfolk, Virginia for 47 U.S. sailors killed in an accidental explosion aboard the battleship U.S.S. Iowa.

Media coverage at Dover AFB led to a controversy during the Panama Invasion:

  • December 21, 1989: The day after the U.S. invaded Panama, the first U.S. casualties from the action were returned to Dover Air Force Base. At the same time, President George H.W. Bush held his first news conference since the invasion. Three networks (ABC, CBS and CNN) chose to broadcast the two events in split screen, allowing viewing of both events at the same time. President Bush appeared to be joking during the news conference, despite the solemn ceremony taking place onscreen at Dover Air Force Base, resulting in calls from viewers complaining to the White House about the broadcasts.

The practice of permitting media coverage of fallen soldiers’ return to the United States was curtailed in 1991, during the Gulf War:

  • February 2, 1991: “Media coverage of the arrival of [] remains at the port of entry or at the interim stops will not be permitted…” Public Affairs Guidance – Operation Desert Storm, Casualty and Mortuary Affairs, Office of the Secretary of Defense (Arlington, VA), Feb. 2, 1991.

There have been many occasions since that time, however, when exceptions were made to permit media coverage.

  • April 1996: The media photographed the arrival and transfer ceremony at Dover AFB for the remains of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 32 other Americans killed when their plane crashed in Croatia. President Clinton was present to receive the flag-draped caskets.
  • August 1998: The media photographed the arrival ceremony at Andrews AFB for Americans killed in simultaneous bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya; the Pentagon released a number of photographs as well, including one showing the transfer of the coffins at Ramstein AFB.
  • October 2000: The Defense Department distributed photographs of caskets arriving at Dover AFB bearing the remains of military personnel killed in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.
  • March 2001: The Defense Department released photographs of caskets being transferred at Ramstein AFB; the caskets bore the remains of six military personnel killed in a training accident in Kuwait.
  • September 2001: The Department of the Air Force published a photograph of the arrival and transfer at Dover AFB of the remains of a victim in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.]
  • October 7, 2001: Military action commenced in Afghanistan.
  • November 2001: Department of Defense restated the ban on media coverage at Dover AFB and at Ramstein AFB.
  • November 2001: The media was given access to Andrews AFB for the arrival and transfer of Johnny Micheal Spann’s remains; Mr. Spann was the first American to die in the invasion of Afghanistan.
  • March 2002: The media photographed the arrival at Ramstein AFB of seven flag-draped caskets carrying the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
  • April 2002: The media was permitted to photograph the transfer of flag-draped coffins at Ramstein AFB that carried the remains of four U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
  • February 2003: NASA released photographs showing the transfer of the space shuttle Columbia astronauts’ remains at Dover AFB.
  • March 2003: Defense Department issued an expanded policy banning media coverage of fallen soldiers’ caskets.
  • March 2003: The media was permitted to photograph the loading of six flag-draped coffins in Kabul, Afghanistan destined for Dover AFB. The soldiers were killed in hostilities in Afghanistan.
  • March 20, 2003: Military action commenced in Iraq.
  • March 26, 2003: Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy Molino Briefing on Casualty Notification discussed the policy barring media coverage as part of a broader discussion of casualty notification procedures. This appears to be the first public discussion of the policy by the military since the initiation of the 2001 Afghanistan and 2003 Iraq conflicts.
  • November 2003: Photographs of a Korean War soldier’s remains as they were unloaded at Hickam AFB (Hawaii) are released to the media by the Defense Department. The coffin was draped with a flag — identical to those caskets currently returning from Iraq.
  • November 2003: Russ Kick filed a Freedom of Information Act request for images of the honor guard ritual at Dover Air Force Base taken from February 2003 to the Present. The request was denied and Mr. Kick files an administrative appeal.
  • As of March 29, 2004: Dover Air Force Base Mortuary maintained a home page which included a photograph of flag draped caskets being returned to Dover in a transport aircraft. This web site has since been taken offline. See image on the page).
  • April 14, 2004: 361 images of soldiers’ and astronauts’ flag draped caskets being handled at Dover Air Force Base were released to Russ Kick of in response to an administrative appeal of a Freedom of Information Act request.
  • April 22, 2004: Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy Molino Briefing on Remains Transfer Policy in response to questions about exceptions to the media ban says “I don’t know that there’s a general standard or a threshold through which you have to pass to say by golly that’s the one we’d have to waive it for.” He further explains “There have been exceptions to the policy, you’re absolutely correct; and they’re directed by my superiors when that occurs. I don’t know what would go in to say that we’ve crossed that threshold.”
  • November 22, 2004: Air Force correspondence responding to FOIA request, including CR-Rom of images previously provided to Russ Kick and an e-mail describing the dates the images were taken. Correspondence denies other pending FOIA requests, stating that there are no images of caskets containing the remains of U.S. military personnel received at any U.S. military facility from April 1, 2004-September 30, 2004.
  • December 28, 2004: Joint Motion for Abeyancefiled to permit administrative processing of appeal and additional searching for images.
  • February 25, 2005: Joint Status Reportfiled describing status of administrative processing of request.
  • March 25, 2005: Plaintiff’s Status Reportfiled describing the absence of substantive responses and indicating that plaintiff intends to request that the stay be lifted and to file a motion for summary judgment.
  • April 8, 2005: Letter from Department of Justiceadvising that “[a]fter searching numerous components of the Department of Defense both within and outside the Air Force, the Department of Defense has located several hundred images that are responsive to Mr. Begleiter’s request .… The Department of Defense intends to provide these images ….”
  • April 15, 2005: Letter from Department of Defenseadvising that “the Department of Defense has located several hundred photographic images that are responsive to your request. These images are in addition to the 361 images previously provided to you.” CD-ROM with 81 images from Defense Visual Information Center and 11 images from US Air Force in Europe.
  • April 25, 2005: “Final response” from Department of Defenseto April 23, 2004 request for images “released to Russ Kick on April 14, 2004 and for all photographs of caskets containing the remains of U.S. military personnel received at any U.S. military facility between October 7, 2001, the commencement of military action in Afghanistan, and the present.” Enclosing a CD-ROM with “268 unredacted and partially redacted photographic images [from] … the United States Army, the United States Air Force, and the Defense Visual Information Center (DVIC).” No video provided.
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