DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- The C-17 Globemaster waited on the tarmac, its tail painted with an American flag and a fierce-looking eagle.
Minutes earlier, the giant cargo jet had arrived from the U.S. airbase at Ramstein, Germany -- carrying the flag-draped casket of a Marine killed in combat in Afghanistan.
Seven enlisted Marines were on the flight line to serve as a white-gloved "carry team," ready to lift the casket from the plane and gingerly walk it down a ramp and to a large unmarked white van for the slow journey to the base mortuary.
The Marines and Air Force personnel waited in respectful silence near the plane.
Moments later, an Air Force sergeant, assigned to film the ritual, gave out the call, "Family wheels rolling." What the military calls a "dignified transfer" was about to commence.
A blue bus with darkened windows and no markings brought relatives of Lance Cpl. Jared Verbeek to a close-in spot where they watched the casket being taken from the C-17 to the van.
On the bus was a Marine staff sergeant who had flown with the family from California. Also present were a Navy chaplain and senior officers from the Air Force and Marine Corps.
Once the family was in position, the process from plane to van took less than seven minutes.
By policy, family members were shielded from the view of journalists. But the family's sobbing and cries of pain cut through the warm night air and were audible even above the sounds of aircraft landing and taking off.
A child was crying. A woman wailed out, "Why? Why? Why? Why?"
Verbeek, 22, was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, based at Camp Pendleton. The married father of an 18-month-old son was killed June 21 by a roadside bomb outside the village of Sangin in Helmand province, a longtime Taliban stronghold.
In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, the news media was banned from witnessing the arrival of caskets at Dover. The prohibition came in response to a 1989 incident in which a TV network used a "split screen" to juxtapose images of a jovial President George H.W. Bush and the coffins of U.S. personnel killed in Panama.
The policy was lifted by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in April 2009 after a review by the Pentagon, individual services, American Gold Star Mothers, Military Families United and veterans organizations.
Press coverage was allowed, but only with the approval of the individual family -- the same policy in place for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.
At the same time, the military agreed to pay the transportation costs for families to and from Dover.
Under the new policy, most families (79 percent) choose to be at Dover for the arrival of their loved one. Before the policy change, only about 5 percent of families came. Out of all families -- those who travel to Dover and those who do not -- 57 percent say the press should be allowed to attend.
"There's never been any disruption; the media has been very respectful," said Trevor Dean, deputy director of Air Force mortuary affairs operations.
The Verbeek family, from Visalia, Calif., agreed to allow journalists to witness the transfer but declined to be interviewed.
Norma Luther, the recently named president of American Gold Star Mothers, said the press is vital "to let the nation know what is going on." Her son, Army Capt. Glen Adams Jr., was killed in a helicopter crash in 1988 in Germany.
"Whether it's a sailor, soldier, airman or Marine, when they come back, the country needs to know the price that has been paid for the freedoms we enjoy," Luther said.
John Ellsworth, chairman of Military Families United, opposed lifting the ban on the press. His son, Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Ellsworth, was killed in late 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq.
Ellsworth, a police chief in Michigan, still has concerns about allowing family members and reporters at Dover. The policy, he said, requires families to make decisions immediately after learning of the death, which adds to the stress and possible disagreements among family members.
"This is the military's time to take care of their own," he said. "My concern is that we have to make decisions that we will live with the rest of our lives, and under great duress."
Still, Ellsworth said, "It's gone smoother than I anticipated."
Early last year, the base opened the Center for the Families of the Fallen, a facility where families can assemble while awaiting the transfer.
Later in the year, a Fisher House, one of more than 50 funded by the foundation begun by real estate magnate and philanthropist Zachary Fisher, was opened to provide free overnight lodging.
Before family members are taken to the flight line, chaplains prepare them for what they will see. In many cases, it has been less than 24 hours since they were notified of their family member's death.
"Many are in shock and disbelief," said Air Force Lt. Col. Dennis Saucier, the senior staff chaplain among six assigned to mortuary duty. "When they see the flag-draped transfer case, the reality of their loss really comes home. Until that time, all they've experienced is what people have told them."
Chaplains offer prayers. Chairs are taken from the bus for family members overcome by emotion.
"There's been more than one occasion when they just seemed to melt into the ground on the tarmac," said Lt. Cmdr. Charles Rowley, a Navy chaplain who deployed with Marines to Iraq and has been at Dover for a year.
Under the rules approved by Gates, no live television coverage of a transfer is permitted. Television reporters can go to the main gate and do their live shots, but only taped footage is permitted of a transfer.
For families who agree, the Air Force posts an image of the transfer on its website. Families are offered a DVD of the transfer process.
From April 9, 2009, when the press policy took effect, through June 22, the night of President Barack Obama's speech about a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, the Dover base, the military's largest air terminal, has had 1,126 dignified transfers. Of those, 4,850 family members and friends were in attendance.
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