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WASHINGTON — Under a mandate from Congress, defense officials are reviewing policies governing how the remains of servicemembers killed overseas are transported home, after some in Congress said the use of commercial airlines doesn’t show proper respect.

Pentagon officials last month confirmed reports that the bodies of troops killed overseas are usually transported via military aircraft to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, but then often put aboard commercial aircraft as freight for transportation to their final resting place.

Although a military escort is provided for all caskets, an honor guard to greet the casket is not. Department policy outlines that if any formal military honors are requested by the deceased’s family, those ceremonies will take place at the funeral.

The issue gained attention in early December when the family of Army Spc. Matthew Holley, killed in Iraq in November, asked for congressional intervention to ensure a military honor guard was allowed to carry his coffin when it arrived at a San Diego airport. Airline officials had denied the request.

Both parents are former soldiers. His father, John Holley, said he was stunned that the military does not require a more reverent handling of the remains.

“This is someone who gave his life for his country,” he said. “We had an expectation of how these men and women should be treated when they return. I was appalled by the whole thing.”

So were members of Congress, who included a provision in the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act mandating a review of the handling of remains. That bill became law earlier this month.

The act notes that use of military aircraft “may be a preferable means of transportation” and requires the Secretary of Defense to establish a policy to greet each casket with a small honor guard upon arrival to its destination.

“The remains of our military men and women should be transported with the utmost ceremony, honors, and respect, and the conferees believe that examination of this issue with an eye toward improvement is called for,” the bill states.

A report from DOD on implementing those changes is due Feb. 1. Defense officials could not be reached for comment on the status of the review.

Officials had said the use of military aircraft could violate federal noncompetition laws between the military and commercial airlines, and noted that the large number of available commercial flights often allow the military to get caskets home faster.

Holley said he’s more concerned with having troops returned in an honorable fashion than moving the process along more quickly.

“If they thought garbage trucks were more expeditious, would they do it that way?” he said. “The country owes it to them to pay the proper respect.”


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