On Feb. 26, 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reversed an 18-year policy that prohibited media access to “dignified transfers,” the process of transporting slain service members’ remains from combat zones to the military’s mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Commissioned to facilitate this solemn process, the Air Force’s public affairs and mortuary affairs corps created a family focused media relations program that offered the media a view into the human price of war.
Their efforts were noticed from the war room to the pressroom. For excellence in strategic yet sympathetic public relations, the Honorable Erin C. Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force, accepted PRSA’s Best of Silver Anvil Award on behalf of the Department of Defense at the Silver Anvil Awards Ceremony on June 3 in New York City.
“It’s incredibly challenging to balance the way that we honor our fallen [and] the way that we care for their families,” Conaton said during her acceptance speech. “We have [a commitment] to the American people to help them understand war and the human cost.”
“Being here tonight [and] receiving the Silver Anvil … is a huge testament to the skill, expertise and professionalism of every [public affairs] pro in the U.S. Air Force,” said Col. Les Kodlick, Air Force public affairs director, during the Silver Anvil ceremony. “It is for those airmen who touched this mission personally.”
Facing the facts
Gates’ 2009 announcement forced the Air Force to balance the Obama administration’s pledge for openness with grieving families’ rights to privacy and respect. While some believed that media coverage would increase transparency, others thought that photos of dignified transfers would be “politically exploited,” The Washington Post reported. Additionally, the change in policy created a wave of public scrutiny that threatened to undermine the Air Force’s actions.
To begin their campaign, the 10 public affairs professionals in charge of the program identified military members, their families, the American public and the media as target publics. Then they surveyed 1,263 airmen to gauge military opinion concerning the change. But the results were discouraging.
They found that 46 percent of the sample opposed the inevitable media attention. Telephone surveys of veteran service groups revealed similar conclusions — military members doubted the discretion of allowing media access.
“There was this real concern about dignity, honor and respect,” said Christy Nolta, deputy director, Air Force public affairs, in a June PRSA podcast showcasing Silver Anvil finalists. “Would that be preserved once we started allowing the media what was perceived to be unfettered access?”
Meanwhile, CNN reported that 67 percent of Americans favored journalist presence at the Dover transfers. These conflicting findings prompted the Air Force to benchmark a similar transfer process at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as efforts in previous decades, such as during the Vietnam War.
“We learned from Vietnam … that this was not about numbers coming off airplanes,” Nolta said. “This was about individuals.”
Putting families first
The Air Force’s unconventional PR strategy was to avoid encouraging or discouraging media access. Instead, they opted to let families decide if they wanted to give journalists permission to attend the transfers.
Nolta said centering the campaign on families ultimately helped the Air Force preserve dignity each time a fallen soldier returned home.
“We knew exactly what we needed to do, and we took that to heart,” said Col. Pete Bloom, office of the secretary of the Air Force at the Pentagon. “In the public relations capacity, you don’t routinely have that kind of tie and emotion that comes out when you’re trying to do your mission.”
The Air Force’s goal was to create a repeatable, reliable program for years to come. In an endeavor that brought together uniformed personnel, civilians and even the FBI, the public affairs teams dedicated a combined 12,000 hours to preparing their project during the first month of the policy.
Implementing in short order
However, there was one small problem with the plan: The Air Force didn’t know when the first dignified transfer would occur. This depended upon the next casualty, which created an unknown timeframe for planning. Coincidentally, a deadline is called a “suspense” in military jargon, a term that underscored the atmosphere as the team scrambled to assemble their campaign.
But when Phillip A. Myers, an Air Force staff sergeant from Hopewell, Va., was killed in action in Afghanistan on April 4, 2009 — and his family approved of media access — his return to America two days later set the mission in motion.
The Air Force published a media advisory and prepared comprehensive media kits to help reporters, who were unfamiliar with the coming-home ritual, understand the event and maintain respect for the family. Officers briefed journalists on everything from where to stand to shelter families from cameras to knowing the transfer terminology: For instance, deceased soldiers’ remains are transported in metal “transfer cases,” not coffins.
Nolta said that language is key to maintaining reverence. “We call them ‘dignified transfers’ as opposed to ‘ceremonies’ because this is just the beginning of their journey before they go home to their final resting place,” she said.
With everything in place, the Boeing 747 that carried Myers’ remains taxied onto the Dover runway in the middle of the night on April 6. Uniformed service members carried the flag-draped case off the cargo hold and onto the cold Delaware tarmac. The brigade marched past the assembled press and mourning family. They placed the case in a van bound for the Dover Port Mortuary — the largest in the country. The entire process unfolded in just 15 minutes and within 32 hours of the death.
Moving from secret to sacred
Myers’ return generated nearly 1,600 stories in every major media outlet and network. Meanwhile, his family members indicated that they felt the transfer aided the grieving process. During the first year of the program, 81 percent of families allowed media access for the first 360 transfers, demonstrating the Air Force’s successful role in helping shape the public’s opinion.
As the campaign progressed, the Air Force focused on whether the media captures the solemnity of the event. Media content analysis of the reports showed positive coverage of the campaign’s desired tones of respect, honor and dignity.
The program also expanded to include the Center for Families of the Fallen, a $1.6 million refurbished five-room waiting area that can host multiple families at Dover.
Overall, the program is “symbolic of the efforts the Air Force is making in support of the joint fight in so many areas,” Conaton said.
Kodlick also said that receiving the Silver Anvil isn’t just about the Air Force — or the Department of Defense.
“At the end of the day, it’s about honoring our fallen,” he said. “It’s really a tribute to them and their families who pay the ultimate price.”
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This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of The Strategist