DOVER, Del., April 6, 2009 -- For the first time since the Obama administration reversed an 18-year-old ban on news coverage of returning fallen soldiers, the military allowed media to cover the arrival tonight of an airman killed in Afghanistan.
The arrival of remains of Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers, a 30-year-old supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, at Dover Air Force Base at 11 p.m. today marked the first time that the transfer of any of the nearly 5,000 U.S. troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan was open to the media.
The transfer of the flag-draped casket was carried out with great dignity, for the seven family members present. One of the men present dabbed his eyes with a tissue.
After a prayer was said by a chaplain, Maj. Klabens Noel, a carry team of eight airmen and women wearing battle dress uniforms with white gloves moved Myers' flag-draped casket from an Atlas Air 747 cargo jet to a waiting panel truck.
In the cool night, under a light breeze, the only noise was the hum of the jet's auxiliary power unit, until the quiet was pierced by the engine of the lift lowering the casket from the jet to the tarmac.
The eight airmen and women carried the casket to a white panel truck, placed it inside, as the doors were slowly closed, the call went out for present arms. The saluting arms were then slowly lowered.
The entire transfer was very methodical and very dignified.
About 40 members of the media were present, and throughout the transfer there were no flashes, no talking, though cameras clicked as casket went by.
In February, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifted the ban on media coverage of returning war dead, ending what some have called an era of censorship enforced by President George W. Bush.
Under the new policy, Myers' family was given the option of whether to admit the media and they chose to let news media cover the dignified transfer.
Myers, from Hopewell, Va., died April 4 of wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device, the Air Force said in a statement. He was assigned to the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron, with the Royal Air Force Lakenheath, U.K., and in March 2008 received the Bronze Star for valor.
Casket Ban Policy Hotly Debated
Since the casket ban was implemented by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, the policy has been hotly debated. To some, it kept ongoing conflict away from the public eye and disguised the cost of war. To others, it allowed the families of fallen soldiers to grieve in private.
Neither President Bill Clinton nor President George W. Bush ever changed the policy, although an exception was made in 2000 after the terrorist attack on USS Cole. 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.
Gates overturned the ban after President Barack Obama requested that he review the policy. But the change was not without conditions. For example, media can photograph returning war dead at the Delaware military base only if the families of the fallen troops agree.
When he announced the reversal in February, Gates said decisions about such coverage "should be made by those most directly affected."
The change was welcomed by government transparency advocates, but despite the condition upholding the wishes of soldiers' families, some advocates for the relatives of the war dead did not support the new policy.
After Gates' decision, three members of the Delaware congressional delegation, Democratic Sens. Tom Carper and Ted Kaufman and Republican Rep. Mike Castle, said in a joint statement that they backed the new policy, but emphasized that the needs of the familes must remain a top concern.
"We urge all of those involved to be respectful of the wishes of the families of these brave men and women," the statement read.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.