A U.S. Army review committee has drafted a new policy that for
the first time would allow the broadcast of remarks made at the funerals
of American service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery, just
Funerals at Arlington National Cemetery are solemn and highly
ceremonial. A horse-drawn wagon brings a flag-draped casket through the neat rows of
white headstones to a freshly dug grave where a grieving family waits.
A white-gloved honor guard folds the U.S. flag that is draped over the
coffin and presents it to the deceased's closest relative.
There is a gun salute. And the mournful final call of taps is played by
a lone bugler standing nearby, among the graves.
Each funeral is the same and each one is completely different --
mourning the loss of an individual -- a son or daughter, husband or
wife, father or mother.
And that is where many in the media and some bereaved family members
believe the rules for media coverage have fallen short. Reporters,
cameras and microphones are kept dozens of meters away, making it
difficult to see and impossible to hear the eulogies, poems and prayers
that tell the personal stories.
How to Honor America's Fallen Heroes?
Ami Nieberger-Miller's brother Christopher was killed in Iraq last year.
Her own family agreed to media coverage of her brother's burial at
Arlington, but she was disappointed to find out later that no one beyond
the graveside heard what was said about him, and it was not recorded.
"It would not have taken a lot for a microphone to have been run from
where the media were, so they could hear the eulogy. It wouldn't have
taken much. Not that we wanted them shouting questions or running up
after us or anything like that. But I did want my brother's life to be
honored," says Nieberger-Miller.
A microphone is what the proposed new policy would provide. The policy,
drafted by a committee formed by U.S. Army Secretary Pete Geren and
provided to VOA by an Army official, would allow, if the family agrees,
for a microphone to provide the sound of the graveside service to
reporters who would still be kept at a distance.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says the Army Secretary wants to
find the right balance.
"He has convened some of his staff and tasked them with trying to figure
out if indeed we are striking the right balance between our first
commitment, which is to the privacy and the desires of grieving
families, and our secondary commitment, which is providing press access
to those funerals," says Morrell.
That was the approach taken by Arlington Cemetery's former Director of
Public Affairs, Gina Gray. The Army veteran, who served a tour of duty
in Iraq, advocated for more media access to the funerals, and was fired
after just a few months on the job.
"I don't think anybody is saying, 'Let the media walk all over the
place, where they want, when they want,' says Gray. "There is definitely a balance
that can be struck between allowing the media to cover a burial where
you can hear the sound and see the beautiful ceremony that takes place,
without being intrusive."
Gray's dismissal by the cemetery's managers prompted the Army's official
review of their media policy.
The Debate Continues
Among the groups calling for change is the Reporters Committee for
Freedom of the Press. Its Executive Director, Lucy Dalglish, says the
public has a right to see and hear the funerals.
"We cover so many other aspects of the war on terror -- the economic
impact, the political impact, the military impact," says Dalglish. "Well, this is the
Dalglish argues the policy that prohibits the media and the public from
hearing the funerals is part of an effort by the Bush administration to
prevent the emotion of such moments from putting additional emphasis on
the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon denies
the charge, saying it only wants to protect the grieving families.
Ami Neiberger-Miller appreciates the effort, but says the media and the
public should still be allowed to hear what goes on at new gravesites
like her brother's in Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60.
"I think they're very aware, in a very painful way on a daily basis, of
the raw emotion that unfolds at Section 60 all day long," says Nieberger-Miller. "And so, I
think they feel like they should try to protect the families. It's a
very delicate balance to strike."
Some reporters who have seen the new draft policy are not sure it
achieves the right balance. They note that it provides for only one
person to have a microphone, still keeps all reporters and photographers
at a distance and does not allow for interviews of family members or
military officials on the cemetery grounds.
Still, it would allow for audio broadcast of service members' funerals
at Arlington National Cemetery -- enabling those individual graveside
stories to be heard for the first time.