Our Honor, Our Grief

Keep politicians and the media away from our fallen soldiers.

BY RONALD R. GRIFFIN Saturday, May 1, 2004

Courtesy of the Opinion Journal

Mr. Griffin is the father of Spc. Kyle Andrew Griffin, a recipient of the Army Commendation Medal, Army Meritorious Service Medal and the Bronze Star, who was killed in a truck accident on a road between Mosul and Tikrit on May 30, 2003.

EMERSON, N.J.--The debate, or rather the topic of criticism, had been simmering even before the first of the fallen heroes in their Flag Draped Coffins began to arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Dianne Feinstein, debating the resolution to authorize the use of force in Iraq, both insulted Americans by her flat-out prediction that as the numbers of the fallen heroes rose the resolve of the American would evaporate and then pre-insulted the soon-to-come fallen heroes by referring to them in the crudest of terms as “body bags.”

Since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, opponents of President Bush have used the deaths of soldiers as political fodder, excoriating him as an uncaring man for not attending their funerals and for keeping in place the policy of no media coverage during the transport of deceased military personnel. The simmering debate has become an inferno, for there are now pictures.

The words of criticism are the same now as they were last year. Last week Mark Shields criticized President Bush for not attending a single funeral and for his refusal to lift the ban on media coverage at Dover. That same day, the New York Times reiterated its editorial opinion to have the ban lifted, saying that though the “theory” seems to be that the pictures are intrusive to bereaved families, “it seems far more likely” that the Pentagon is eager to check “the impact that photos of large numbers of flag-draped coffins may have on the American public’s attitude toward the war.”

I have lived through the numbing sadness of going to Dover to pick up my son, and have experienced the body-shaking pain of having to lay to his final rest a member of the U.S. military.

The idea of criticizing President Bush on his choice not to attend the funerals is ludicrous. The simple fact is that President Bush either attends all or attends none for to attend some could be interpreted as an insult to those fallen heroes whose funerals he is seen to have “spurned.” Besides, the logistics are impossible. On the day that my son was being buried in New Jersey his two buddies he was killed with were being buried at the same time at opposite ends of Pennsylvania. What was the president to do when the helicopter crashed and killed 17 soldiers? How to attend 17 funerals without forcing the families to wait for the president?

I would not have wanted the president to attend my son’s funeral, for it would have changed the entire dynamic of the day. The church service was a “Celebration of the Life of Kyle Andrew Griffin” and had President Bush honored us with his presence that would have all changed. It would have become a media circus. I knew full well how much President Bush honors my son, and I am comforted by that.

The arguments put forth to have the ban on media coverage lifted vary from allowing the American people to bear witness to the sacrifice of the soldiers and thus honor them, to the need to deny President Bush the opportunity to hide the real costs in human terms of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Steve Capus, executive producer of “NBC Nightly News,” arrogantly and presumptuously spoke for me when he stated, “It would seem that the only reason somebody would come out against the use of these pictures is that they are worried about the political fallout.” Well I am that “somebody,” and as I looked at those pictures the tears were not running because of my worry about political fallout. In all the criticism there has never once been put forth a single argument of how having the media coverage lifted would be of benefit to the loved ones of these heroes. We are never taken into account. We are the collateral damage in this all so obvious ideological struggle.

During those days between June 1 last year, when we were notified of our son's death, and June 6, when we picked him up at Dover, we were constantly (and privately) informed of the process that was taking place. We were aware that he would leave the evacuation hospital, and be transported to Kuwait and eventually to Dover. But as in all things military, exact timeframes were nonexistent. Our Casualty Assistance Officer, Sgt. First Class Tyrone Russell, who was with us every step of this process and who was to become an individual beloved by all who had the honor of meeting him, informed us on June 5 that we could pick up our son the next morning. That would have meant that our son would have arrived along with his buddies sometime on the later half of June 4. There would have been a certain time-requirement to perform the final identification process and conduct the final military-only ceremony to honor the fallen heroes.

Had the media ban not been in effect, we, the families of fallen soldiers, would not have had these moments to ourselves. Without the ban, it is conceivable that I could have viewed a procession of flag-draped coffins as they disembarked from the aircraft. But how would the families of those other fallen heroes, who would be unable to come to Dover because they lived in Iowa or North Dakota or Arizona, feel when they viewed on TV their loved ones arriving? Would they feel the honor that was being bestowed upon them from all those other Americans? Or would they suffer further when the pictures were used in the context of criticism?

If it is truly the intention of those who support the lifting of the ban to honor these gallant individuals while giving the American public the opportunity to grieve with them--and if it is truly the intention to bear witness to sacrifice and view at first hand the cost of this war--then let them visit the families of those who freely chose to join the military family. Let them visit the grave sites, let them journey to Fort Bragg or Fort Campbell or Fort Hood and speak to those who have returned or who might soon be joining the fight.

My son, Spc. Kyle Andrew Griffin, was a hero as a soldier and as a son. He died loving what he was doing with those he loved and respected. He will be forever remembered by those who knew him. The date of his birth will be seared into the memory of all Americans, for he was born on Sept. 11, 1982. But never should the memory of his death be intoned as ammunition on the political battlefield.