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Air Force Tech. Sgt. Phillip A Myers

Died April 4, 2009 Serving During Operation Enduring Freedom

30, of Hopewell, Va.; assigned to the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom; died April 4 near Helmand province, Afghanistan of wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device.

Family permitted media at Dover arrival

By Beth Miller

The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal / Gannett News Service

DOVER, Del. — The service of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Phillip A. Myers, 30, of Hopewell, Va., was not finished when he died Saturday in Afghanistan of injuries suffered from an improvised explosive device.

Late Sunday night, the arrival of Myers’ body at Dover Air Force Base in a flag-draped transfer case became a powerful reminder to his nation and the world of the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces and the high cost of war.

His return also marked an early watershed in the administration of President Barack Obama, a nod in favor of transparency and away from secrecy favored by prior administrations.

Thousands of fallen troops have returned to the United States through the military’s primary mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. Their flights are met by an honor guard, by military officers, by a chaplain and other dignitaries. Their remains are afforded the highest respect and precision as they are processed for return to their final destination.

But until Sunday night, no news coverage of the returns had been permitted since 1991, when President George H.W. Bush and then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney banned media coverage.

Privacy was cited as the primary reason.

That changed as Myers’ flag-draped transfer case was escorted by an eight-member carry team with crisp, solemn precision to a waiting van from the jet that had carried it from Ramstein, Germany. On Sunday, a few more than two dozen media members quietly snapped pictures, scribbled notes or trained video cameras at the procession shortly after the plane landed at 10:30 p.m.

The casket of an Army soldier was taken down first. That soldier’s family was not asked for permission for media viewing because of time constraints.

“My heart is broken for this family,” said Judy Campbell, chair of Gold Star Families of Delaware, which honors those who have lost a family member in military service. “Their life is changed forever. I hope that having this picture of their loved one returning, that in the years to come it will give them some peace ... some comfort.”

For almost 20 years, that hadn’t been possible. Glimpses of the returns were made available only when the Pentagon released hundreds of its own photos after a 2005 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by University of Delaware professor and former CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter.

The media ban was lifted last month after Obama ordered a review of the policy. After the review, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided coverage would be permitted — but only with the family’s consent.

Thousands of transfers

Obama opened the door to reconsidering the policy in his first prime-time news conference as president in early February. He said he had not decided on the policy and wouldn’t until “I have evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved.”

Vice President Joe Biden in 2004 had urged a change to the policy, when the then-senator told CNN: “This is the last long ride home. These young men and women are heroes. And the idea that they’re essentially snuck back into the country under the cover of night so no one can see that their casket has arrived, I just think is wrong.”

Almost all of the 4,266 casualties in Iraq and the 668 casualties in Afghanistan through the end of March have come through Dover’s mortuary, military officials said earlier this year.

Dover and Pentagon officials could not provide the total number of transfers that have come through Dover, but Air Force spokesman Vince King said in February that 3,867 had come through Dover between May 2004 and May 2008.

Families and military members have been divided on whether the policy should have been changed.

Some agreed with Biden that acknowledging and honoring the fallen troops is an important part of the nation’s ability to better understand the cost of war and the sacrifices made by service members and their families.

Others were concerned that such coverage would be used to advance a political anti-war agenda — as some did in the Vietnam War years — or turn a somber occasion into a “media circus.”

Rules and restrictions

As the window was opened Sunday night to readmit the public to the returns, the procedures put in place by the military were tight and designed to allow the procession to be recorded without allowing media to interfere.

About 30 media members boarded a bus in the Blue Hen Corporate Center at 9 p.m. for transport to the nearby base, then briefed and taken to a restricted area from which they would observe and record.

Each representative signed a set of rules that included a prohibition on taking any images of family members who might be on hand.

No live filming was allowed, nor were “stand-ups,” in which a commentator speaks into a camera as the action unfolds in the backdrop.

The military rules advised media members that “there will be no unnecessary noise or movement during the transfer. Movement required to perform duties should be conducted in a slow and deliberate manner in an effort to not distract from the event.”

Maj. Paul Villagran assumed a new job as director of public affairs for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center a week ago to prepare for the change in policy, which was to take effect Monday. By Sunday, more than 80 members of the media had registered to be notified of a permitted return.

Villagran said all was devised to protect the family’s privacy and preserve the honor and dignity of the return.

“There is no amount of effort we wouldn’t put forward to provide that care and support,” Villagran said Saturday.

An important recognition

Myers’ widow was the first to be asked about media coverage and granted permission. She was flown into Dover on Sunday night from the RAF base in Lakenheath, England, where Myers had been assigned to the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron.

Myers died Saturday near Helmand province. He was awarded the Bronze Star at a March 19, 2008, ceremony at Lakenheath. He also had won the Air Force-level 2008 Major General Eugene A. Lupia Awards military technician category for significant achievements.

Other family members drove to Dover on Sunday from Virginia. The military paid for all family travel expenses to Dover.

At precisely 11 p.m., a dark blue shuttle bus carrying family members arrived, and an eight-member carry team, all wearing white gloves, marched to the aircraft. They slowly mounted the long stairs to the cargo bay and walked to the spot where a K-loader was positioned with Myers’ transfer case.

The senior officer on the team, Maj. Gen. Del Eulberg, the Air Force’s civil engineer, was joined by Col. Dave Horton and Maj. Klavens Noel, a chaplain, at the cargo bay door. The chaplain offered a brief prayer.

The team then raised the case and positioned it at the end of the K-loader, which descended slowly to the tarmac. The team then slowly bore the case to a white panel truck and loaded it inside.

The van then was driven off with an escort to the mortuary area. The ceremony was marked by silence, except for two orders from an officer.

Campbell, the chair of the Gold Star Families, said she believes that Sunday’s recognition of the significance of Myers’ sacrifice is important.

“I really do believe, when people know that other people care and remember, it does bring them some comfort,” she said. “Their loss will always be there, but it’s always comforting to know that others are not forgetting the sacrifice.”

Begleiter, who has said he launched his FOIA effort with the National Security Archive in 2004 to restore the return ceremonies at Dover to a rightful place of honor, had this to say Sunday: “This is an important victory for the American people to be able to honor their returning servicemen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Myers was dedicated to his airmen, father says

The Associated Press

When Phillip A. Myers decided to join the Air Force, his father didn’t expect him to choose bomb technician as his specialty.

“That was the biggest thing that surprised me,” said his father, Eddie. The younger Myers half-jokingly told his father that he took on the job because it paid more, but he wound up loving the work.

“If there’s anything we can find comfort in, it’s knowing that he died doing what he loved to do,” his father said. “That is without a doubt. He was just so enthused about it.”

Myers, 30, of Hopewell, Va., died April 4 near Helmand province of wounds suffered from an explosive. He was assigned to Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the United Kingdom.

Eddie Myers said his son looked out for the people serving under him.

“If he thought a job was too dangerous, he would get out and check it out himself,” he said. “That might be why we don’t have Phillip here today. But to me, that’s admirable.”

He graduated from high school in 1996 and worked at the Riverside Regional Jail in Hopewell before joining the military.

Phillip also is survived by his wife, Aimee, and their two children, Dakotah, 6, and Kaiden, 3.

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