06 April, 2009

Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers Comes Home

The Times recently had a brief but very sobering post about Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers, the first KIA service person to be photographed in his flag-draped coffin, returning home. As per the conditions of the recent ban lift--the result of an executive order from President Obama--Myers family gave their consent to the press attending the ceremonial and sad homecoming.

Some things in the article really struck me. The first is how quickly things change, perhaps in general, but in war in particular: Myers was awarded a bronze star on March 19, yet just over two weeks later he was dead, and days later returns home draped in a flag. The second--and this is really nothing shocking, but brought things home for me--is that Myers was 30, as am I.

But the sentence I found particularly chilling was this: "Dover Air Force base, in Delaware, houses the largest military mortuary in the country and is the Pentagon’s point of entry for service men and women killed abroad." One assumed that there had to have been a location for something like this, but actually learning where it is sort of shook me. It is as if Pentagon has built its own private San Michele, which I somehow found troubling. I wonder if, among the military, there is the sense that one wants to go home, unless it's to Dover.

Those opposing the lift on the ban fear that the images of the draped coffins could become politicized. While this is certainly possible--(some might say inevitable)-- these images provide an essential dose of empathy, an illuminating look at how the military works, and in particular how it deals with their dead. Being able to see these photos has the potential to open eyes and alter perceptions.

It reminds me of something my grandfather--a WWII vet from the European Theatre--said during his interview for Soldier Songs, paraphrased here:

At First Army Headquarters, keeping a record of all the casualties--the dead the wounded--and that's about the first time it hit me, when you see all the casualties coming through, he dead the wounded...though I never recognized any of the names.

Just reading this short blog entry in the Times, well, in some ways it's really the first time it hit me. It made the war more real, more dreadful. It made the sacrifices of those who fight it--and of their families--all the more vivid. Is this somewhat unpleasant? Perhaps, but it is also very important. If this ban lift will help the American people better see the true (if difficult) cost of this war, then it is nothing if not positive.

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