The U.S. Air Force Honors Fallen Heroes

The U.S. Air Force Honors Fallen Heroes.

On February 26, 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reversed an 18-year policy that prohibited media access to œdignified transfers, the process of transporting slain service members’ remains from combat zones to the military’s mortuary at Dover Air Base in Delaware. In order to create a media relations program that would respect those who had died in combat and their families, the Air Force’s public affairs and mortuary affairs corps had to consider how and in what ways to advance understanding of the cost of war to the media and the American people. Gate’s announcement required that the Air Force balance the Obama administration’s pledge for openness with grieving families’ rights to privacy. At issue was whether media coverage would increase transparency or lead to political exploitation through any photographs of the transfer ceremonies. The Air Force public affairs officers in charge of the program identified key publics that needed to be considered: the fallen service members and their families, the American public, and the media. The public affairs officers surveyed 1,263 airmen to gauge military opinion concerning the change. They found that 46 percent of the sample opposed the media having access to the transfers. Telephone surveys of veteran service groups found similar doubt about media discretion. Meanwhile, CNN reported that 67 percent of Americans favored journalist presence at the Dover transfers. Also, the Air Force studied similar transfer processes that were used at Arlington National Cemetery and transfer policies of previous military conflicts such as the Vietnam War. The Air Force’s final strategy was to avoid encouraging or discouraging media access. Instead, the families were to decide if they wanted to give journalists permission to attend the transfers. Centering the campaign on families helped the Air Force preserve dignity each time a fallen soldier returned home. The Air Force’s goal was to create a repeatable reliable program. In doing so, it partnered with uniformed personnel, civilian agencies, and the FBI to prepare plans during the first month of the policy. On April 4, 2009, Phillip A. Myers, an Air Force staff sergeant from Hopewell, Virginia, was killed in action in Afghanistan, and his family approved of media access to his transfer. His remains were to return to Dover Air Force Base two days later. 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. Public affairs officers briefed journalists on everything from where to stand, to sheltering families from cameras, to knowing transfer terminology. With everything in place, the Boeing 747 that carried Myers’s remains taxied onto the Dover runway in the middle of the night on April 6. Uniformed service members carried the flag-draped transfer case from the cargo hold and onto the Dover tarmac. The brigade marched past the assembled press and mourning family. When they placed the transfer case in a van bound for the Dover Port Mortuary, the entire process had taken just 15 minutes and was held within 32 hours of the death. Myers’s return generated nearly 1,600 stories in every major media outlet and network. His family members indicated that they felt that the media access and transfer process aided in the grieving process. During the first year of the program, 81 percent of the families allowed media access to the first 360 transfers. The Air Force is now studying whether the media coverage is expressing the solemnity of the event. Its analysis so far has indicated that media coverage is achieving the campaign’s desired goal of communicating respect, honor, and dignity. Also, since the program’s inception, the Air Force has built a Center for Families of the Fallen, a $1.6 million five-room waiting area that can host multiple families at Dover. Although the media coverage has leveled off, the Associated Press has promised to cover each œdignified transfer”a promise that it has kept so far. (Source: Excerpted from Philip Volmar, œWith Honor: The Air Force Receives the Best of Silver Anvil Award for Tribute to Fallen Soldiers, The Public Relations Strategist (Summer 2010), pp. 29-31. Copyright 2010 PRSA. Reprinted with permission by PRSA.) Questions 1. What are the special issues that government public affairs must consider because of its obligations to the American public? 2. Identify the specific publics of concern to the Air Force in this case and how these publics were involved in the eventual program. 3. What did the Air Force do to ensure respectful relationships with the families of the fallen soldiers? To ensure good relationships with the media? 4. What were the Air Force’s communication strategies and tactics in helping to shape public opinion about the dignified transfers? 5. Were there other ways to evaluate the success of this program?

The U.S. Air Force Honors Fallen Heroes

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