Army defends transporting of dead to U.S. on commercial flights
WASHINGTON — Defense officials confirmed this week that the bodies of deceased troops are usually transported as freight on commercial airlines, but they insisted the practice is not unusual or disrespectful.
The practice came under scrutiny this week after Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., helped arrange an honor guard to welcome the body of a San Diego soldier, Spc. Matthew Holley, killed in Iraq in mid-November.
His family contacted the senator after being upset by Army plans to deliver his remains without formal ceremony via a commercial airport, and after the airline denied them permission to have members of their son’s unit unload his casket.
Shari Lawrence, deputy public affairs officer for Army Human Resources, said military aircraft are prohibited, legally, from providing services already available through commercial flyers, as spelled out in laws governing noncompetition between the military and the private sector.
“We don’t expect everyone to be happy about that,” she said. “We do have families who get upset, and we tell them it’s OK to be mad at us. … But it’s part of public law.”
In a separate statement, a defense official said the practice is “not at all disrespectful” and that commercial airlines “have historically been able to bring our fallen heroes home more quickly than if moved aboard military airlift.”
Lawrence said the bodies of nearly all troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are brought to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for identification and preparation of the remains, then sent to their final resting place from there.
Defense officials said every body that leaves Dover is accompanied by an escort, either a servicemember or a member of the deceased’s family.
If the family is within a day’s drive of Delaware, the body is usually driven to the appropriate funeral home. If not, the casket is usually driven to Philadelphia International Airport, and a domestic flyer is paid by the department to carry the body.
Lawrence said the procedure mirrors what would happen if a civilian casket was being transported. The military coffin is loaded into a shipping case, and the escort accompanies the body until a family member or a funeral home takes over.
Contrary to popular belief, the Army does not have a formal ceremony for when the bodies of soldiers arrive at the base or when they are delivered to the family, she said.
“If the Army is going to pay its respects, that would be at the funeral or a memorial service,” Lawrence said.
Bernard Edelman, an associate director with the Vietnam Veterans of America, said during that war, bodies were returned to both Dover and Oakland Army Base in California, and traveled on commercial flights and trains from there to the servicemember’s hometown.
“In any case, it has to be terribly difficult for the family,” he said. “But the body does get home, and that’s something.”
Boxer has sent a letter to Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey for an investigation into this case, noting that she “would like to spare other families from this terrible experience.”