On Memorial Day, images of freedom's cost hold our attention and stir our souls. Floral wreaths are delicately placed beside marble monuments. A lone bugler mourns out "Taps." Gold Star families gather, bound by love and remembrance, while American Legion color guards march in formation. Such scenes tug at our emotions and say something deep about our nation and its values. To me, as a Legionnaire, the way we remember our fallen is a matter of both pride and purpose. Memorial Day gives form to those feelings.
The media are understandably drawn to such imagery. We are grateful when local and national press join us in honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice. We are likewise enraged when those images are abused or redirected to serve political or personal agendas.
That's why I was troubled last winter by a Pentagon review of the DoD policy banning news-media photography of arriving flag-draped caskets containing the bodies of U.S. military men and women killed in service. The ban had been in place since 1991, when President George H.W. Bush determined that news media had no real need to enter a military base, or any other point of entry, and take pictures of caskets holding our fallen Gulf War troops. The policy, which held through the Clinton and Bush administrations, provided the press with excellent DoD photography of the flag-draped caskets. It was a reasonable policy. Military installations, such as Dover Air Force Base, are not public squares. For good reasons, media access is carefully regulated at our bases.
Ultimately, Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided on a compromise: to allow outside media access to the arriving caskets only when approved by families of the deceased. This raises some questions. What if one family member or another brings in the media in an effort to discredit the war, or the mission a soldier gave his life for? What if a family member's decision runs counter to a soldier's wishes? So many troops I have known over the years, particularly since 9/11, volunteered for service, bravely willing to lay down their lives for our protection and for the freedom of others. I also have to wonder what happens when an image, published with a family's consent, takes off across the Internet - is multiplied or magnified - and is used to empower our enemies. Furthermore, when a family has borne the incredible burden of a lost loved one, is it fair to give it the additional burden of this decision?
The American Legion stands firmly behind the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. The freedoms expressed therein set us apart from tyrannies. But with those freedoms come responsibilities, which mean limits. When an outrageous anti-gay protest group swoops in to disrupt a military funeral on the basis of free-speech protection, or when the U.S. flag is burned to make a point, I believe limits are breached. When the media are invited to publicize images of flag-draped caskets, I believe limits are unnecessarily pushed. I can only hope those who invite that media exposure can say, without hesitation, that they are honoring the wishes of the men and women who died for such rights.
No matter the decision, The American Legion will stand by families and honor their sacrifice and loss - long after the media have moved on to other stories.