DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del.—They come night and day, holidays and weekends: steel-gray military cargo planes bearing America's war dead.
A chaplain says a prayer, and six soldiers march aboard the plane. They straighten the flag that drapes each coffin, then carry the dead, one by one, over the tarmac to midnight-blue vans for the half-mile crawl to the base morgue and mortuary. All traffic, indeed, all work stops at this sprawling base as the motorcade goes by.
This is the scene you can't see under a 12-year-old White House no-news-coverage policy that Pentagon officials say shields the troops' privacy and dignity, but critics complain is a bald attempt to hide bad news.
More than 400 times since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. forces have carried out the hour-long transfer ritual at this central Delaware air base, the arrival point for American troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not once in that time has the ceremony been broadcast on television.
But soldiers and civilians involved in the ceremony want to reassure Americans that, although they can't see it, their fallen fighters aren't "cargo being treated just like something else coming off a plane," said Army Col. Chuck Taylor.
"This is the most precious thing that we have as a nation, and we're bringing them home," he said.
As commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as The Old Guard, Taylor dispatches an honor guard from his base 100 miles away at Fort Myer, Va., for every dead soldier's arrival.
Rather than don the full-dress uniform worn at most military burial ceremonies, the honor guard wears fatigues, like their fallen comrades.
"The last time they left the United States of America, they were walking aboard an aircraft with soldiers, fellow service members. So when they're brought back to the United States, they are met by soldiers," Taylor explained.
Participants say there's no special schedule for the arrivals and no special hearse flights. They seem to arrive about 48 hours after the media report the latest casualties—after troops in the field have placed the dead in body bags and then in ice-packed 7-foot aluminum "transfer cases."
Military logisticians put the dead on the first available flights. If they die in Iraq, they shuttle them from Baghdad to Kuwait to Germany to Dover.
Former President George H. W. Bush's administration imposed the news-coverage ban after CBS and CNN split their screens to show Bush explaining the 1989 Panama invasion campaign while the first dead arrived at Dover.
Pundits and politicians argue that Americans lose their resolve for war when they see dead soldiers in flag-draped coffins. They call it the Dover Test or Dover Factor, though there's debate on whether it's the images that are important to public opinion or the mounting casualties themselves.
"Whether or not there's an actual factor there, it seems to be that the American public will take only so many casualties before a conflict becomes unpopular," said U.S. Marine Corps chief historian Chuck Melson. "We don't have the stomach for a long conflict if there are casualties."
Others say the issue isn't so much the dead but how Americans view the mission. Americans united about the mission would see the images of Dover as symbolizing sacrifice and service. A mission mired in uncertainty could transform the very same image into a symbol of defeat.
In any case, the air base has long been associated with dread. In Vietnam, troops would talk fearfully of ending up in Dover—code for being killed in action. Nearly half of the Vietnam War dead were handled here—21,693.
"The problem with Dover is that it has an unmistakable image of a warehouse full of war dead. That's freaky," said Tim Lomperis, an intelligence officer in Vietnam who now chairs the political science department at St. Louis University. "Here we are, a major industrial power, and we associate images of warehouses with commerce, vitality, prosperity. And there is a warehouse with frozen corpses."
On rare occasions, America has glimpsed the arrivals. President Clinton lifted the ban in 1996 for a solemn salute to Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and the 32 others killed when their U.S. military plane crashed in Croatia. The Navy released photos of the arrival ceremony for sailors killed in the al-Qaida bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.
But a recent tour of the base by a Knight Ridder reporter firmly excluded any possibility of seeing that night's arrivals. Instead, the tour highlighted a hustle of daytime activity at the base that moves 47 percent of all overseas-bound military shipments.
Air freight has tripled here since Sept. 11, 2001—everything from paper plates and bubble wrap to Humvees and helicopters, bound for Iraq and Afghanistan. Less cargo comes in. The most precious, the dead, go to the base's morgue and mortuary.
Nine full-time staff members work there, under the direction of Karen Giles, a reserve Air Force lieutenant colonel who these days supervises dozens more reservists and active-duty service members.
Mortuary workers recall only one day since the Iraqi campaign began in March when an American's remains weren't in the funeral parlor or the morgue.
Soon after Iraqi opposition forces shot down a Chinook helicopter near Fallujah on Nov. 2, the staff ballooned to 60.
"It hasn't been the same since Sept. 11," said Bill Zwicharowski, 39, an embalmer and former Marine who has worked in civilian funeral homes. He sees a special tragedy in the dead handled here. "They're in their early 20s," he said. "To think that someone intentionally pulled a trigger or set a booby trap is different than your nursing-home death."
It is a mortuary like no other on U.S. soil. The state-of-the art facility has a special airport-style X-ray conveyor to scan for live explosives embedded in bodies, a station to bar-code each of the bodies and DNA and dental labs for definitive identification. FBI agents take fingerprints and pathologists work at 24 specially ventilated stations for autopsies and embalming.
As a distraction for workers, a radio station plays music through the public address system. Rod Stewart was wailing "Tonight's the Night" on a recent day while an autopsy was being performed.
There are also more traditional funeral parlor duties. Corpses are given cosmetic touch-ups, dressed and placed in coffins—steel or wood, depending on the next-of-kin's preference.
Usually the family requests dress uniforms, Giles said, showing a room in the mortuary that resembles a wardrobe trailer on a Hollywood movie set. There are uniforms, ribbons, medals and insignia for all service branches. Sometimes the family requests that the beloved wear combat dress. Not so long ago someone sent a soldier's blue jeans.
"Everything has to be as close to perfect as humanly possible," said Army Spc. Eric Taylor, 21, of Chicago, who arrived about three weeks ago from corpse recovery duty in Afghanistan. He now works as a dresser, preparing a dead soldier's ribbon rack, complete with a posthumous Purple Heart.
Each coffin is draped with a fresh American flag, and there's a provision for local cremation, if the family wishes.
Mortuary services started at Dover in 1955, in a chilly warehouse on the edge of the base. It was temporarily expanded for emergencies across the years, most recently for the 188 people killed in the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.
Now the work is done in a gleaming 70,000-square-foot building that opened Oct. 27, adjacent to the old morgue. The new building was funded by a $30 million item in a special budget to fund the war on terror.
Giles, 42, who has a master's degree in management from Florida International University, worries both that the dead be treated with "dignity, honor, respect" and about her staff's mental health. Counselors are available, as is a reflecting pool.
Typically, a fallen fighter leaves Dover three to five days after arrival. A military escort accompanies each coffin in a hearse as it leaves the base. Some go to airports in Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., if the families are far away.
Grieving families are encouraged to stay home and wait, says the base spokesman, Lt. Col. John Anderson.
"We've found the final resting place is most appropriate for a ceremony," he said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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