Policy on press coverage of military deaths should consider families

Anita Tedaldi

If my husband died in combat, would I want the media to photograph his coffin as his body came home to me?

I can’t help getting choked up thinking about this grim scenario. I don’t even want to consider the possibility, let alone worry about whether I would want the press to be part of this private moment of loss.

Despite my resistance to thinking about it, this has been on my mind lately following Defense Secretary Gates’ announcement of a review of the policy that bars photographers from taking pictures of the return of coffins. This policy has a direct impact on military families, the people who live with the consequences of a loss far beyond what’s captured in a still photograph, but agonized over lifetimes.

As a journalist and military spouse, I’ve been on both sides of the fence, trying to get my ‘angle’ and being part of an angle, and I know military folks frame this debate differently than the press or policy-makers.

I speak as a military spouse when I say that it’s a personal issue and a scary one. I fear the media will violate my privacy when I want it most. But I also see the other side. For those who aren’t part of the extended military family, it’s not a personal issue but it’s an important one. For policy-makers working to bridge the gap between civilian and military, it’s a way to show the cost of the war. That’s a worthy goal, but one that risks using an unwilling participant, the grieving family, as a means to an end.

I asked John Ellsworth, president of Military Families United, who lost his son in 2004 in Iraq what he thought of the policy. He said that he would rather have the administration “keep the policy the way it is, but if they felt they had to change it, than I would rather see them leave it up to the individual families.”

Maybe my worry that the media will follow grieving families is unwarranted. Secretary Gates said at a recent Pentagon news conference that “If the needs of the families can be met and the privacy concerns can be addressed, the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better.”

Maybe those reviewing the ban will inject the personal into the policy, and satisfy both public and private needs. This administration has promised to listen to our concerns, and as someone who has closely followed their efforts to reach out to military families, I believe they will.

I didn’t want to think about this issue, but I did for a long time. Personally, if my husband died, I’d allow the press to be present, not because they have a right to, but because I’d want the world to see who my husband was, a hero who should be honored by all. But if I wanted to be alone, I’d hope that policy-makers would respect my wish.

Anita Tedaldi is a freelance writer, mother of five and wife of an Air Force pilot. Contact her at: anita@anitatedaldi.com