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ARLINGTON, Va. — Fallen servicemembers and Defense Department civilians are now being transported home in flag-embossed containers after two instances in which the remains were not handled correctly on commercial aircraft, according to the head of Army mortuary affairs.

Col. Pat Gawkins, director of the Army Casualty and Mortuary Operations Center, said the change is meant to ensure that the remains are treated with “care and concern.”

“We don’t want them coming off mixed with luggage and handled in an improper way because someone on the ground didn’t realize what’s going on,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

In most cases military officials use commercial aircraft to transport remains from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to their final resting place.

“We found that roughly 65 percent of Army families go to the airport to meet their soldiers,” he said. “What we wanted to do is create a way where the visibility that the remains coming off the aircraft were that of a fallen comrade, so that the air crews knew as they saw things being loaded into their aircraft and the ground crews knew.”

Gawkins did not provide details of the two instances when caskets were handled incorrectly on commercial aircraft.

The “honor cover” features a graphic of an American flag and the Defense Department seal on both ends of the container in which caskets are transported, said Marine Maj. Stewart Upton, a Defense Department spokesman.

The Defense Department is not releasing pictures of the honor covers because a permanent design has not yet been decided upon, Upton said.

The practice of transporting fallen troops home on commercial aircraft came under criticism last year from the family of Army Spc. Matthew Holley, killed in Iraq in November 2005, when airline officials denied their request for an honor guard to unload the casket from a commercial airline.

In October, Congress mandated that the Defense Department use military or restricted private aircraft for transport. That rule goes into effect in January, though Gawkins said it is unclear how that will affect how the remains are transported home.

The honor covers are one part of an Armywide review on casualty issues, designed to help families better deal with the loss of a servicemember.

As part of that review, the Army is now requiring an investigation into the deaths of all soldiers killed by hostile action, Gawkins said.

“What prompted it was our experience over a number of these cases where we thought we knew the circumstances and then it came to light later that the investigation showed it wasn’t what it seemed to be,” he said.

Gawkins would not say if any particular incident had prompted the requirement.

But it has been reported that the Army launched a review of hundreds of deaths since 2001 after the parents of 1st Lt. Kenneth Ballard, of the 1st Armored Division out of Friedberg, Germany, were initially notified that their son was killed in action, only to find out more than a year later that his death was accidental.

The case was similar to the death of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman, a former NFL player initially reported as killed by enemy fire in Afghanistan. Months later, the service publicly stated it was a result of friendly fire.


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