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Pentagon To Pay For Families Of Fallen Soldiers Travel To Delaware

2:26 PM, Mar 18, 2009   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Pentagon said Wednesday it will pay for families of fallen soldiers to travel to the Delaware base where the U.S. military's deceased are flown from overseas.

The change is part of the Obama administration's plan to reverse an 18-year ban on news coverage of the return of war dead, allowing photographs of flag-covered caskets when families of those killed agree.

One objection to lifting the ban had been that if the media were present, some families might feel obligated to come to Dover Air Base for the return ceremony. The ceremony takes place with or without the family in attendance.

The Defense Department notified Congress this week that along with allowing the media to record the return of military coffins, it will bring families to the base if they want to be there.

The Pentagon said the person designated as "primary next of kin" will decide on behalf of families whether to allow media coverage. In the case of married service members, that means a spouse.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates soon plans to announce final details, including ways the Pentagon will help families who choose to allow media coverage. There are plans to increase the availability of grief counseling services and chaplain support.

Gates announced last month he was changing the policy, but would wait until advisers came up with a detailed plan. It is not clear when the first media photographs will come, but Pentagon officials have said it would probably be a matter of weeks.

Critics, including some Democrats and liberal groups, claim the government was trying to hide the human cost of war by preventing modern versions of an iconic image from long-ago wars: a line of flag-wrapped coffins coming home.

The ban was put in place by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War.

From the start, the ban has been cast as a way to shield grieving families.

Advocates for veterans and military families are split on the issue; some say they want the world to honor fallen troops or see the price of defending the country.

Under pressure from open-government advocates, the Pentagon in 2005 released hundreds of the military's own images of flag-draped coffins from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from previous wars and from military accidents. The photographs were released in response to a Freedom of Information request and a lawsuit.

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