WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will begin allowing media coverage of the return of American war dead to U.S. shores beginning next month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday, as long as families of the fallen agree.
As the Obama administration lifts the 18-year ban on news coverage, the Pentagon also announced that it will arrange and pay for families of deceased soldiers, seamen, airmen and Marines to travel to the Delaware military base where remains arrive from overseas.
President Barack Obama had asked for a review of the ban, and Gates has said that the blanket restriction made him uncomfortable. Last month, he said he would let families decide for themselves whether to allow photographs, and Wednesday's announcement filled in many of the details.
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"The overriding principle is the decisions about media coverage should be made by those most affected — the families," Gates said Wednesday. He choked up when relating a recent trip to Dover.
For example, he said, if several caskets arrive on the same flight news coverage will be allowed only for those whose families have given permission.
It is not clear when the first family might agree, but Pentagon officials said they expect the first photographed ceremony will take place within weeks.
Critics of the ban, including some Democrats and liberal groups, claimed it was a government attempt to hide the human cost of war by preventing modern versions of an iconic image from long-ago wars: a line of flag-wrapped coffins coming home.
The ban was put in place by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, at the time of the Persian Gulf War.
One objection to lifting the ban had been that if the media were present, some families might feel obligated to come to Dover Air Base for the brief, solemn ritual in which honor guards carry the caskets off a plane.
Few families now choose to attend, in part because doing so means leaving home and the support system of friends at a difficult time. The sudden trip can also be expensive and logistically difficult to arrange.
The Pentagon said the person designated as "primary next of kin" will decide on behalf of families whether to allow media coverage. In the case of married service members, that means a spouse.
There are also plans for more grief counseling services and chaplain support.
From the start, the ban was cast as a way to shield grieving families. Advocates for veterans and military families are split on the issue; some say they want the world to honor fallen troops or see the price of defending the country. Others say the media is too intrusive.
Gates went to Dover earlier this week to see the return of four service members killed last weekend in a roadside bomb attack near Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Gates declined to discuss the visit in detail, and choked up as he described walking to the back of the plane alone for a few minutes of contemplation before the caskets were carried out.
Dover hosts the military's largest mortuary facility, and the only one in the continental United States.