The Konformist

May 2004

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Photos of Military Coffins (Battlefield and Astronaut Fatalaties) at Dover Air Force Base

Russ Kick,

Since March 2003, a newly-enforced military regulation has forbidden taking or distributing images of caskets or body tubes containing the remains of soldiers who died overseas.

Immediately after hearing about this, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the following:

All photographs showing caskets (or other devices) containing the remains of US military personnel at Dover AFB. This would include, but not be limited to, caskets arriving, caskets departing, and any funerary rites/rituals being performed. The timeframe for these photos is from 01 February 2003 to the present.

I specified Dover because they process the remains of most, if not all, US military personnel killed overseas. Not surpisingly, my request was completely rejected. Not taking 'no' for an answer, I appealed on several grounds, and—to my amazement—the ruling was reversed. The Air Force then sent me a CD containing 361 photographs of flag-draped coffins and the services welcoming the deceased soldiers.

Score one for freedom of information and the public's right to know.


Correction/Amplification Regarding Dover Casket Photos

Short version:

73 photos are of the Columbia astronauts. 288 photos are of war dead.

These 288 photos are the ones that you weren't allowed to see, which is why the Pentagon and the White House are furious about this.

Long version:

Among the 361 Dover casket photos are a minority of images showing coffins of the Columbia astronauts. I didn't realize this at the time that I posted them, mainly because when the Air Force asked for clarification during the process, I specifically told them that I wasn't requesting photos of the Columbia astronauts, only military personnel killed overseas.

(Not that I have anything against astronauts. One of the tricks for writing successful Freedom of Information Act requests is to make your request as narrow as possible. I was afraid that including the astronauts in the request would give the Air Force another excuse not to release the photos. As in: "Well, since you want the astronaut photos, we're going to have to clear that with more federal agencies.....") I've since been told by a reporter that NASA released the astronaut casket photos at the time and has never objected to their use. Quite a marked difference from the battlefield dead, who are swept under the rug by the Pentagon.

So, out of 361 photos, the first 73 were of the astronauts (which have now been moved to a separate page). Doing the math, this means that 288 photos are of military personnel who died overseas.

Where exactly were they killed? The photos as released offer no clues, nor did the Air Force's cover letter with the photos. But let's do some more math. From March 2003 to the present, 726 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq. During that same time period, 38 have died in Afghanistan. Thus the odds are 19 to 1 that any given casket contains someone killed in Iraq. Put another way, there's a 94.8% chance that a casket comes from Iraq.

Plus, in no instance have more than seven soldiers been killed at once in Afghanistan. One set of pictures shows 20 caskets in the plane's hold. This group must be from Iraq.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who might definitively know (through visual clues, for example) where the other caskets are from.

I've changed the headline of the Dover caskets page to reflect that some of the photos are of astronauts and that there's a 5% chance that some caskets are from Afghanistan. I apologize for the oversight on my part and hope that this misidentification hasn't upset anyone.

Be this as it may, the significance of the photo-release remains unchanged:

We were not allowed to see the war dead arriving at Dover.

Now we are.

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