Photos of soldiers' coffins are off limits
Woman loses job after policy breach
WASHINGTON—As a mother who had lost a son to a brain tumour, Tami Silicio wanted mothers who had lost sons and daughters in Iraq to know the remains of their loved ones were being treated with respect and dignity.
So she took a photo of rows of flag-draped coffins being loaded on to a cargo plane in Kuwait awaiting return to the U.S. and had a friend deliver it to her hometown newspaper, which put it on the front page.
And then she was fired.
Silicio had breached a policy the Bush administration will not bend — it will not allow photos to be taken of the bodies or coffins of any of the more than 700 soldiers who have been killed in Iraq.
The media blackout of such photos has sparked debate in this country, with opponents of the Iraq war arguing the Pentagon is trying to sanitize the war by banning photos of a type that were so hugely symbolic of the Vietnam War.
Silicio's photo was published on Page 1 of last Sunday's Seattle Times after a friend delivered it to the paper.
Wednesday she was fired, along with her husband, from their jobs with Maytag Aircraft Corp., a Colorado-based U.S. government contractor at Kuwait International Airport.
The company has acknowledged it fired the 50-year-old Edmonds, Wash., woman after pressure from the Pentagon. It praised the work done by her and her husband.
The Pentagon would not discuss the specifics of the case yesterday, but a spokesperson reiterated a policy that it says is in place to guard the privacy of bereaved families.
That policy prohibits photos of the remains of dead soldiers in any stage of their transit home, including loading areas such as Kuwait or their final U.S. destination, Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
The Pentagon is also investigating how a Web site known as The Memory Hole obtained 361 photos of flag-draped coffins and ceremonies from Dover under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The photos were posted on the Web site by its editor, Russ Kick.
The Pentagon said the photos were taken for historical purposes and should not have been released.
Silicio told the Seattle Times she was sorry to lose her job and merely wanted families of fallen soldiers to know of the care demonstrated by crews taking their loved ones home.
As part of her job, she had access to the loading area and often spoke to soldiers accompanying the bodies back to the United States.
"It kind of helps me to know what these mothers are going through, and I try to watch over their children as they head home," she said.
Her photo, showing more than 20 coffins, was taken April 7 in the midst of some of the worst fighting of the Iraq war. The Seattle Times did not pay her to use it.
The National Military Families Association says it stands by the Pentagon edict. "We believe the current policy is sensitive to the needs of the family and we urge everyone else to be sensitive to them as well," it said yesterday in a statement.
Democrats have accused the Bush administration of manipulating war coverage.
"These young men and women are heroes and this is the last long ride home," Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, told CNN yesterday. "The idea that they are essentially snuck back into the country under the cover of night so no one can see that their casket has arrived, I just think is wrong."
The Times knew it was heading into controversial waters.
"Some readers will object to the image because the press has been largely denied access to take photos of coffins returning from war since the 1991 Gulf War," executive editor Mike Fancher said in a commentary to readers. "Some will see the picture as an anti-war statement because the image is reminiscent of photos from the Vietnam era, when the press wasn't denied such access.
"But that isn't Silicio's or the Times' motivation."
The policy banning photos of arriving coffins was established by former president George H.W. Bush, but had been relaxed under president Bill Clinton. It was reaffirmed by the George W. Bush White House on the eve of the Iraqi war.