After All This Time....

For 18 years the returning caskets with the bodies of American military personnel who have died in combat have not been photographed on arrival in the US. Dover Air Force Base, here in Delaware, just up the road from the village of Lewes by the Bay and the big water, is the port of entry for most of those who have been killed in combat overseas. In the last 18 years there have been more than 5,000 returned bodies, the large majority in the last five years. With one exception, an unidentified event, there have been no photographs. Now it is possible.

There is no joy in any of this, but at least the dignity of their return and the honor due them can be finally joined with the reality that the human cost of war is close and real and ought not be hid from sight.

Holy Week involves our walking with Jesus through those last days. Perhaps these returning coffins seen now for the first time in 18 years is a walk with those who have died.

The acknowledgement in sight and sound of the return carries meaning. It makes real the seemingly abstract numbers, the seemingly complex justifications for the exercise of political will in war, the unheard cry for the dead. Here is a video story on the return of the first soldier whose return has been acknowledged. In order to paste it in you have to deal with a commercial tag at the bottom of the screen, and a story about those who receive the fallen, but there it is. (Sigh).

But after all this time, their return home is known in real time, and in plain view.


  1. Fr. Mark,
    The REAL cost is felt when one stands on the battlefield just after the last round has been fired and you begin to collect the dead and the wounded. The mix of feelings the runs through your head is far more basic than dignity and honor. Only later, in the light of a new day, does one begin to try to decipher the more cerebral questions. I have no problem with our citizen soldiers but I have a major issue with those who treat these soldiers like so much cannon fodder useful only insofar as it grows their ego. Sometimes, rarely, is it necessary, but each life is so precious that I could only hope that those old men who tend to make war should be the ones not to meet the bodies at the airport but be the ones who pick up the pieces off the battlefield.

  2. Mark+,

    While stationed at Dover, I witnessed this sad, solemn act on numerous occasion. Not only these, but when a soldier who was injured in say, a training exercise would come home. One ofe my duties included sending the dispatches on to the decedent's home of record.

    I don't want to gloss over the human cost of either just or foolish wars. Still, I'm troubled by the thoughts that these images will become agitprop for bomb throwers on both the left and right.

    A. Terry
    Diaconal Candidate

  3. I am, especially, appreciative to the families who allow us to share in the solemn homecoming of their loved ones. My father served in WWII and he frequently said that when the first life in war is lost the war is lost. We need see the return of our fallen soldiers so that, hopefully, the decisions made about war keep this reality a part of decision.

  4. Andy... me too. The people who loose a member of their family, the people who care for people in the field of battle (see Fred's response) and those who care for the wounded deserve never to be treated as items for propaganda.

    Your caution is well taken.

    My guess is that the Dover flights will not make the news after this first day. Our responsibility to continue to remember the human costs of war are not about seeing the pictures but about being aware and alert to the realities.

    I don't think there is any easy way to do this.

    Thanks for the note.

  5. This hits home harder than most, the soldier under that flag served in the same unit as my friend's husband. She's also career military.


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