War mothers divided on decision to allow photos of flag-draped caskets

Eric Timmons

The decision to reverse a policy that banned news media from taking pictures of flag-draped coffins returning from war has elicited mixed responses from local mothers whose sons died in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week he would change the 18-year-old rule and allow pictures to be taken of the coffins of returning war dead, provided the families of the fallen agree.

Marcy Gorsline’s son Caleb Lufkin of Knoxville died from complications during surgery to repair shrapnel damage to his leg from an injury sustained in Iraq in May 2006.

She said it was important that people are aware of the sacrifices made by those in the military, and that means the public should see coffins coming home, provided families give the all-clear.

“When it happens you are angry, you are livid and you want everybody to know what they’ve done to your son or daughter or loved one,” she said. “There is no sense in burying your head in the sand.”

Gorsline said people needed to understand the toll war exacts on military families. “People need to know, they need to see the flag-draped caskets coming home.”

Nita Cross, whose son Kyle Wehrly, a Galesburg High School graduate, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006, has a different view. She said she didn’t think the coffins should be photographed.

“I honestly believe that they should not be shown, it’s very personal and very private,” Cross said. “Prior to Kyle being killed I saw pictures of coffins on a plane and it was very traumatizing.”

She added, “I don’t think it’s really necessary” to show pictures of flag-draped coffins. “It’s a very hard time on families and I think it’s just something the press can explode and say, ‘look how many people are dying in Iraq.’ ”

The time after a soldier dies should be private, Cross said. “It needs to be a time for healing and recovery,” she said. “One last thing that you don’t need to look at is coffins coming off a plane and think, ‘is that my soldier?’ ”

State Rep. Don Moffitt, R-Gilson, said he was “surprised” to hear about the policy change.

“I would absolutely only think it is appropriate if the family gives permission,” he said. “It is a very, very private and difficult time and I would have assumed that most families would have wanted to keep it private.

“If it would help grieving families pay tribute to fallen soldiers then I’m OK with it.”

Moffitt said the remains of returning war dead should be treated with the “utmost dignity” and families of the fallen should be given as much privacy as possible.

He was unsure, however, how the new policy would work in a situation where several coffins were being taken off a plane. “If a plane is carrying the remains of multiple soldiers, that creates a logistics problem.” The key, however, Moffitt said, was making sure that the wishes of bereaved families were given priority.

Gates announced the change in policy Thursday, lifting a blanket ban on photos of war dead arriving in the U.S. The policy was introduced by President George Bush in 1991. The ban mainly affects coffins arriving from Iraq and Afghanistan that go through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

“I think that foremost in our thinking about issues like this should be the families and giving them choices,” Gates said in a news conference at the Pentagon.

Eric Timmons can be reached atetimmons@register-mail.com