Grief for War Dead Shrouds Casket Photo Ban

Families grieve for sons and daughters lost in war but want their stories told.

February 16, 2009, 7:13 PM

Feb. 17, 2009 — -- Swept by a wave of national patriotism after Sept. 11, 2001, Patrick McCaffrey signed up for California's Army National Guard -- never dreaming that he would end up in Iraq.

But in June 2004, just three months after the deployment of his unit, the 34-year-old father who had run two car repair shops was murdered at close range in Balad, Iraq, shot eight times in the chest.

"His life was the American middle-class dream," said his mother, Nadia McCaffrey, 63, a veterans' rights activist who lives in the house her son left in Tracy, Calif. "He didn't realize war could happen."

The family was besieged by the press nonstop for 10 days, and because they had so many unanswered questions about their son's death, they allowed the media to join them when Patrick's body arrived in Sacramento.

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"The day my son left for Iraq he was hoping to make a difference," his father, Bob McCaffrey, told "He left behind his children, his wife and his own life. We are not going to hide him when he comes home."

The McCaffrey's decision defied a longstanding military ban on photographing the caskets of America's war dead -- a policy that had been enacted in 1991 during the first Gulf War. Many mistakenly believe that it was President George W. Bush who enacted the ban.

"It's like they're hiding the service members killed in action," said McCaffrey, 64, of Bella Vista, Calif. "It disgusted me from the beginning."

That controversial policy may soon be overturned by President Barack Obama, who has asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to review the impact on military families.

Many of the families, though concerned about guarding their privacy in a time of unimaginable loss, agree that it's time to lift a ban that some say sanitized the grief of war.

"When people listen to Patrick's story, what he did, who he is, we finally put a face on a war," said Nadia McCaffrey, who founded Veteran's Village for those who are homeless and are dealing with post-traumatic stress.

The family later learned that Patrick, the first in California National Guard's 579 Engineer Battalion to be killed since World War II, was killed by three Iraqis whom he was training in the civil defense corps. His mother has joined Mary Tillman, mother of football hero Pat Tillman, and others to investigate their sons' deaths.

Pat Tillman Killed by Friendly Fire

Tillman was also killed by so-called "friendly fire" in Afghanistan, just two months before Patrick in Iraq, and in both cases the military was slow to reveal the truth. One of the men accused of killing McCaffrey is ready to be put on trial in Iraq.

"Patrick was killed for this country in a war we didn't believe in," said his father, who had served in the military in a noncombatant role from 1965 to 1968.

During the Vietnam era, open press coverage helped convince most Americans that the war was a mistake. Subsequent administrations worried that images of war casualties would cost them public support.

Neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush ever changed the policy. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, more than 4,200 flag-draped war dead have arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Vice President Joe Biden has said the coffins are being "snuck back into the country" and called the policy shameful. Other Democrats have accused Bush of censorship.

"If the needs of the families can be met, and the privacy concerns can be addressed, the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better," said Gates at a news conference at the Pentagon last week. "I'm ... pretty open to, to whatever the results of this review may be."

Just Friday, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Obama might hear back from Gates in "a matter of days, rather than weeks."

Military families say that if the ban is lifted, they hope that individual wishes are respected and the issue does not get further politicized.

"Our stand is always on the side of the families," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. "How they choose to honor the service and sacrifice of their loved one is a family decision, one in which outsiders with different agendas should have no influence."

Military Families United, which represents about 60,000 such families, has asked the Obama administration to consult their group before shaping public policy. So far, they have had no response.

"If there needs to be a change, it should be up to family members to decide," said President John Ellsworth. "Those who are affected should make that call."

"Some want to show honor and want to be able to share their hero with America," he told "Others would rather hold it a little closer."

Losing a Hero Son to War

Ellsworth, 45, knows the pain firsthand -- his 20-year-old son, Justin, was killed in an explosion in 2004 in Iraq and he was awarded numerous medals for saving 11 others in the blast.

Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth joined the Marines in 2003, inducted just hours before the March invasion of Iraq.

"We were visiting Washington, D.C., in August 2001, and two weeks later the Pentagon steps were in smoldering ruins," said he father. "It really affected him."

"If it's not me, Dad, who is it going to be?" asked Justin. When Marines arrived at Ellsworth's door at 10:15 on Saturday night, he knew it was "bad."

"It absolutely changed my world," he said. "I was a small-town cop in the middle of Michigan and had no idea how government worked. But dealing with this, I felt a need to help military families."

But Ellsworth refused to say that Bush "wanted to hide" the war deaths. "We don't want it to become political on either side," he said.

Sondra Millman-Cosimano of Riviera Beach, Fla., is worried the effort will be hijacked by anti-war groups. She lost her granddaughter, Airman First Class Elizabeth Jacobson, in an explosion. The 21-year-old was the first female security officer to die in Iraq.

"It's wrong to exploit it," she told "We need to honor what they gave for their country. It's a touchy thing. And the media can only take a picture and then everyone else puts their spin on it.

"It seems to be the people who have the most to say are not the ones who have lost a loved one," according to Cosimano, 68, a former police dispatcher.

"War is not a good thing but it's part of life," she said. "I believe in law, honor, honesty and country."

She does agree that "when you see a bunch of coffins coming back, you get a different image of what it's about," she said.

But New Mexico insurance saleswoman Hope Veverka, 49, said President Bush "should not have kept those moments secret," referring to the ban on photos of returning caskets.

Her only child, 21-year-old Brandon Sapp, was killed in 2004 in Iraq when the tank he was driving backed over an explosive device.

Ban Reflects 'Ripple of War'

"I miss the essence of him," she said. "He was 6 feet tall, handsome, very independent and strong-willed. When he said, 'Mom, I'm going to Iraq, my heart sank.'"

She said the public is entitled to see images of caskets if a family approves.

"Every family grieves differently," Veverka told "Some can't even talk about it and others like me want it open. For me, I want to show the world what happened to my son."

But she said the slow military process is grueling on grieving families and the press doesn't make it easier. News travels fast in communities, and arriving caskets can easily be identified when deaths have been announced.

If the ban is lifted, Veverka wants the military to take "extra measures" to ensure privacy for those who want it.

"Before they even arrive at Dover, a lot has happened to the families," she said. "The military has shown up at my door and told me. I am mortified. I am sobbing on the floor. At this point my son is still in Iraq or they have flown him to Germany."

"You sit in a nightmare and your heart is wrenching," said Veverka. "It almost broke me, and I'm a pretty strong woman."

Families cannot even make funeral plans until the body is returned to U.S. soil.

"The sad part is I'll never get to hear 'Mom' again," she said. "I still turn in stores when I hear it. This is the reality of war, not 'Let's all go in and kick their asses.' Men and women die over there, on both sides. It affects everybody.

"It's a ripple effect," she said. "His life touched this person and they let me know, then my friends, then the community and to the media. I call this the ripple effect of dying. Imagine when 4,200 men and women have died. Part of that is showing what happened to my son."

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