BERLIN - The U.S. military said Monday it was sticking to a policy forbidding television camera crews and photographers from filming coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq at a U.S. air base in southwestern Germany.
Officials at Ramstein, a major U.S. air base which serves as a transfer point, had allowed media access in the past to honor guard ceremonies and transfers of American-flag covered coffins onto U.S.-bound military transport planes. But rules banning coverage were strictly enforced just before the Iraq war began.
While U.S. officials say the policy was created out of respect for relatives, others criticize the lack of media access, arguing its aim is to prevent the public from seeing large numbers of coffins that could turn public opinion against the war.
"You can argue both sides," said one U.S. official who asked not to be identified. "Some say Americans need to see this, this is factual and the public needs to see (the coffins). Yet you also think of the mom of a killed soldier and the trauma of seeing television pictures of her son being repatriated."
Journalists seeking access to Ramstein to film coffins of 15 Americans killed Sunday in Iraq when their helicopter was shot down were told that Department of Defense policy was still "No." Only coverage of injured soldiers was permitted.
"The D.O.D. policy is that there is no media coverage of deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein Air Force base or Dover Air Force base," said Maj. Bill Bigelow, U.S. European command spokesman in Stuttgart.
A Defense Department official denied there was any censorship and said the purpose of the policy was to protect the privacy of families "during their times of greatest loss and grief." The rule has been in effect since 1991 and was reaffirmed in March, he said.
However in recent years the rule was relaxed and television journalists in Germany were able to cover honor guard ceremonies, including the transfer of coffins of sailors killed in an attack on the U.S.S. Cole and the war in Afghanistan.
"During 'Enduring Freedom' the D.O.D. did make some exceptions in the policy," said Major Mike Young, public affairs chief for the 86th airlift wing in Ramstein.
"Since 'Iraqi Freedom' started the D.O.D. said we are going to enforce the policy. For the past year we haven't done any (media coverage) on remains."
The corpses of most of the 250 American servicemen killed in Iraq have passed through Ramstein since the war began. In some cases after the seven-hour flight from Iraq they are transferred to another plane for an eight-hour flight to Dover.
"We were a bit surprised by the sudden ban (on covering coffins)," said Andy Eckardt, a producer based in Mainz for NBC who covered about five such transfers there in recent years. "But we follow the regulations. What can I do? It's the military. They own the base."
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