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Major Change for Arlington National Cemetery

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 outside Washington.

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 human impact."

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.