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The military privacy debate
Eight years into the war on terror, military wives are aces at anticipatory grief. The possibility of loss was introduced so early in my marriage, it may as well have been an attendant at the wedding. Immediately after our brief predeployment ceremony at city hall, my husband made sure I had our marriage certificate safely stored, as well as his will. While he was at war, I mentally rehearsed his funeral a hundred times, right down to the psalms and the finish on the casket fittings. And many of us Army wives, in the recesses of our closets, have stashed a black dress, just in case -- if not for our own husband's funeral, then someone else's. The military preaches readiness, after all, and, we reason, if tragedy comes, we may not handle ourselves perfectly in the abyss of grief, but damn it, we'll be prepared.
In the ongoing exercise of "what if," wives and military families now have a policy change to consider. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced the Pentagon's decision to lift the complete ban on video and photos of the return of fallen troops to domestic soil. The ban, dating back to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, covers the transfer of flag-draped caskets at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base, the first U.S. stop en route to the final resting place for deceased military personnel. Now it will be up to the families of the service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan whether to allow the media to record what happens at Dover.
Gates asserts that the decision "should be made by those most directly affected, on an individual basis, by the families of the fallen. We ought not presume to make that decision in their place." A recent poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans are in favor of the change.
Within my own circle of active-duty military and veterans' wives, the numbers are little different. In fact, they're in constant flux, as we hotly debate the issue at playgrounds, in cafes and on blogs. We go back and forth: Which side do you favor -- the public's right to know or your own right to privacy? In this wide-ranging spousal social network, there are stay-at-home moms and soldiers, PhDs and burlesque dancers, Bible-clutching liberals and conservatives who never darken a church doorstep. Contrary to stereotype, we don't move in Stepfordian lock step, and our opinions are as diverse as our ranks.
One acquaintance, favoring privacy, said that if the worst were to happen to her husband and someone wielding a camera dared to elbow in on her family's grief, she'd "open up a can of Army wife whoop-ass." The image of the modern military spouse is half-frontier wife, half-Care Bear -- by turns stoically able and cooingly comforting. But when it comes to acting on behalf of our kin and the larger military family, make no mistake: Wives are warriors too.
I get where the privacy-or-else camp is coming from. Though I could not have anticipated this when I married a soldier in 2002, I have come to care for troops and their families with a ferocity that words fail to elucidate. My instinct is to wave away onlookers, to protect, to defend. The civilian world, in particular the media, is justifiably suspect. Though I have an occupational link to that realm, I harbor my own mistrust of the media, along with some cynicism about a public that fetishizes the warrior class yet can't wholly understand it. Times are stressful enough for military families without adding fear of exploitation.
But as much as I relate to the protective stance of "No, you can't come in," I respect those who would welcome the media, saying, in essence, "Take him, he's yours too. He is our country's son." Let these photos be his final act of service. In the name of honor and authenticity, I want the American people to see how the military respects its own, in aching ceremonial flourish, down to the last detail -- caskets being carefully loaded on planes; the gun salute; the rap-tap-tap of the sticks on the snare drum rim, marking the cortege cadence in the graveyard.
Military wives know that images are powerful, even ones shared only among ourselves. Last Christmas, I told my beautiful friend Rebekah, whose family is stationed at Ft. Bragg, that I teared up after receiving the holiday card that showed her in a sleigh with her young son and newborn daughter whose father had yet to meet her because he was deployed.
That's not all, Rebekah said. She had to contend with people getting the card and thinking the worst had happened to her husband. "What kind of life am I raising my family in," she wondered, "that I worry that someone will assume he's dead?"
And images of flag-draped coffins -- well, my Army-strong posture dissolves at the sight. They bring me face to face with what I might have lost, a terror blast that fires right through me. What startles me is how raw it feels; years past my husband's last deployment, the mere glimpse of such photographs makes that fear leap up inside, fierce and alive.
Had my husband been killed in action, which route would I have chosen for his return, were I given the chance -- public or private? I can't say for certain, but I'm grateful that military families now get to decide for themselves, a rare shot at agency in a way of life where so many choices -- major and minor, life or death -- are made for you. When we discuss what any of us might choose, all I can do for now is weep at the specter of loss, and listen. And that's OK, because for the moment no one I know has to make such a decision.
I hope we never will.
Lily Burana is the author of "I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles." Her husband, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Persian Gulf War, is an analyst at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.