Pentagon Limits Media Coverage of Funerals

When Sgt. Maj. Cornell W. Gilmore was buried today at Arlington National Cemetery, it was with full military honors from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry — including a bugler playing "Taps."

Gilmore, 45, was one of six U.S. soldiers killed when a Black Hawk helicopter went down last week in Tikrit, Iraq.

But media seeking to cover Gilmore's funeral found themselves limited by new Pentagon regulations that went into effect on Thursday. The new guidelines state that "reporters are no longer permitted to stand at the rear of the mourners during the service," and microphones "are not permitted … anywhere near the grave site."

The Pentagon says it is merely trying to protect the privacy of the families of the fallen soldiers. But the new rules have some reporters wondering whether it is just the latest move by the Bush administration to limit coverage of casualties of the war in Iraq.

Such a thing would not be unprecedented. As historian Michael Beschloss notes, "throughout history, presidents have been very sensitive to the effect of casualties in a war on support for that war."

‘It's Not the Right Thing to Do’

Even some of the president's staunchest supporters take issue with some of these moves. Harvey Appleman, a retired sergeant major who lives in Clarksville, Tenn., supports both the president and the war in Iraq, but he takes issue with the Pentagon's recent reinforced ban on media coverage at Dover Air Force base, where soldiers' coffins arrive from overseas.

"My views on keeping cameras out of any areas that shows the sacrifice that military personnel make is it's not the right thing to do," says Appleman, a registered Republican. "People ought to know what's going on. They ought to see the real thing. And the real thing is a very humble thing. The real thing is a casket draped with an American flag. It just does something to your heart. You know that person sacrificed for their country."

On the other side of the debate is Ruth Stonesifer of Kintnersville, Pa. Her son Kris, an Army Ranger, was killed in Pakistan in October 2001. She supports the media restrictions.

"A family who feels very strongly and is very proud of their son's service to his country takes a risk when the media portrays his homecoming in a very negative light as just a body count," she says.

The ‘Dover Test’

Images of soldiers' coffins impact the national psyche. Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton refers to something he calls the "Dover test." This is how he described it in a 2000 speech at Harvard University: "Is the American public prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets into Dover Air Force Base in Delaware?" If not, he cautioned, the war should probably not be fought.

Previous presidents have taken the risk, allowing cameras at bases and even attending ceremonies themselves to honor the fallen soldiers. But in 1989 networks showed a split-screen of the first President Bush while caskets arrived from Panama. This angered the White House and by the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, cameras were banned from Dover. President Clinton made some exceptions for soldiers killed by terrorists, but before military action in Iraq began this year, the Pentagon reinforced that 1991 ban.

The current White House says President Bush prefers to keep personal events private. But Appleman wants the public to see — and learn.

"These are veterans that are dying for us today, dying for our freedom," he says. "And freedom is not free."