Putting Her Foot Down and Getting the Boot – Press Director at Arlington Refused to Conceal Iraq War Funerals

Washington Post

July 10, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tried to sweep out the symbols of his predecessor’s capricious reign, firing acolytes of Donald Rumsfeld and bringing glasnost to the Pentagon.

But in one area, Rummy’s Rules still pertain: the attempt to hide from public view the returning war dead.

When Gina Gray took over as the public affairs director at Arlington National Cemetery about three months ago, she discovered that cemetery officials were attempting to impose new limits on media coverage of funerals of the Iraq war dead — even after the fallen warriors’ families granted permission for the coverage. She said that the new restrictions were wrong and that Army regulations didn’t call for such limitations.

Six weeks after The Washington Post reported her efforts to restore media coverage of funerals, Gray was demoted. Twelve days ago, the Army fired her.

“Had I not put my foot down, had I just gone along with it and not said regulations were being violated, I’m sure I’d still be there,” said the jobless Gray, who, over lunch yesterday in Crystal City, recounted what she is certain is her retaliatory dismissal. “It’s about doing the right thing.”

Army Secretary Pete Geren, in an interview last night, said he couldn’t comment on Gray’s firing. But he said the overall policy at Arlington is correct. “It appears to me that we’ve struck the right balance, consistent with the wishes of the family,” the secretary said.

Gray, in tank top, jeans, Ray-Bans over her Army cap and flip-flops revealing pink toenails, struck an unlikely figure for a whistle-blower yesterday as she provided documents detailing her ill-fated and tumultuous few months at Arlington. She worked for eight years in the Army as a public affairs specialist in Germany, Italy and Iraq, then returned to Iraq as an army contractor doing media operations. While working with the 173rd Airborne in Iraq in 2003, her convoy was ambushed and, she says, she still has some hearing loss from the explosion. The 30-year-old Arizonan was hired to work at Arlington in April.

Just 10 days on the job, she was handling media coverage for the burial of a Marine colonel who had been killed in Iraq when she noticed that Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery’s deputy superintendent, had moved the media area 50 yards away from the service, obstructing the photographs and making the service inaudible. The Washington Sketch column on April 24 noted that Gray pushed for more access to the service but was “apparently shot down by other cemetery officials.”

Gates had his staff inquire with the cemetery about the article and was told that “the policy had not in any way changed,” Gates’s spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said yesterday. Geren, the Army secretary, added that “the policy has not changed, and I understand the practice hasn’t, either.”

That, however, is false. Through at least 2005 — during Rumsfeld’s tenure, no less — reporters were placed in a location where they could hear the prayers and the eulogies and film the handing of the folded flag to the next of kin. The coverage of the ceremonies — in the nearly two-thirds of cases where families permitted it — provided moving reminders to a distracted nation that there was a war going on. But the access gradually eroded, and Gray arrived to discover that it was gone.

And soon, so was Gray. After Gates’s inquiry into The Post column, Gray, still days into her new job, began to get some rough treatment. “Gina, when you leave the building let me know,” said a one-line e-mail from her supervisor, Phyllis White, on May 2. Then Gray was instructed not to work overtime without written approval, and then was ordered to take down a Marines poster from her cubicle wall. “Please change your title from public affairs director to public affairs officer,” White instructed in a June 9 e-mail.

Gray complained to Arlington’s superintendent, John Metzler, and was briefly removed from White and Higginbotham’s supervision. But on May 27, White sent an e-mail announcing that “Mr. Metzler changed his mind, I will continue as your supervisor.” The acrimony increased. Gray went to the hospital complaining of stress-related headaches; while she was recovering, her BlackBerry was disconnected “to alleviate you from stress,” as White put it.

Arlington’s problems with the burial of the Iraq dead go far beyond Gray; the cemetery is looking for its fourth public affairs director in the past few years. Gray contends that Higginbotham has been calling the families of the dead to encourage them not to allow media coverage at the funerals — a charge confirmed by a high-ranking official at Arlington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Gray says Higginbotham told staff members that he called the family of the next soldier scheduled for burial at Arlington and that the family, which had originally approved coverage, had changed its mind. Gray charges that Higginbotham admitted he had been making such calls to families for a year and said that the families “appreciated him keeping the media out.”

Higginbotham, White and Metzler did not respond to e-mail messages yesterday seeking their comment. An Army spokesman said Higginbotham and other Arlington officials call families only if their wishes regarding media coverage are unclear.

On June 27, Gray got her termination memo. White said Gray had “been disrespectful to me as your supervisor and failed to act in an inappropriate manner.” Failed to act in an in appropriate manner? The termination notice was inadvertently revealing: Only at Arlington National Cemetery could it be considered a firing offense to act appropriately.

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