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Pausing on Memorial Day to honor those who served

Thoughts on Memorial Day 2013

Pausing on Memorial Day to honor those who served

(Memorial Day "Giant Flag Folding" activity for National Constitution Center visitors, on their front lawn on Independence Mall Sunday, May 27, 2013)

Back at home from a Memorial Day day-off spent with my family,I was just looking through Time Magazine's LightBox gallery, at the photographs of Baltimore-based free-lance photographer Steve Ruark. Shooting mostly for the Associated Press, he has made 278 trips to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, covering the return of 490 fallen troops. His pictures are incredible. It is remarkable how he found so many ways to make each and every one a unique photograph, especially considering the restrictions placed on the media: stay in the same spot and do not photograph family member. Ruark, who has probably seen more of these brief ceremonies, known as dignified transfers, than any other civilian, tells Time writer Nate Rawlings that sharing his images is part of a crucial undertaking: “If something’s not photographed, it’s easy to deny...It’s a fact that Americans are getting killed overseas. Making people look at it makes them weigh the costs."

Like most Americans today, owing to the demographics of our all-volunteer military, I don't have any family or good friends in the service. So it's easy not to have to think about the risks they face every day.

(Philadelphia International Airport, January 14, 2004)

Nine years ago I was at Philadelphia International Airport shooting a routine business section assignment when I happened to look toward the tarmac below. A U.S. Army soldier snapped to attention, just as a case was being transferred by an airline baggage handler onboard a US Air jetliner. I made one or two frames, including the one above, through the window.

I thought about the scene for a second or two. In a busy, bustling, commercial airport I'd just witnessed the quiet bond of a military tradition hundreds of years old: Leave no man behind.

Then I set out, within the constraints of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration, to find a way to get some information about what just happened. I was already in the gate area (we used to purchase a ticket - then return it later, unused - to gain access to the concourse when shooting assignments at the airport) and tried unsuccessfully to find out where the saluting soldier went, as it was immediately clear to me the box contained a casket with a soldier's remains. The gate agents, airline personnel, and even volunteers at the USO waiting area wouldn't help me.

I couldn't shake the sight of the escort, who presumably had accompanied the body to the airport from the airbase in Delaware, and quite possibly all the way from Iraq. Again, just guessing, I figured he was staying with his fallen comrade all the way to his hometown for burial.

Then, as now, the remains of all U.S. troops troops killed in action were returned to the Dover. However, unlike today, coverage of the dignified transfer process was closed to the news media. In 1991 President George H. W. Bush implemented a ban on coverage of returning war dead, which was not lifted until President Barack Obama reversed the policy in 2009, giving family members of the fallen the right to allow or disallow media coverage. Since then, LightBox writer Rawlings says, the remains of 2,285 military members have come through Dover’s mortuary, and the media has covered about 60 percent of the ceremonies (Ruark being the main photographer).

Back at my office in 2004, knowing the flight with the casket was a nonstop to Florida, I looked up the hometowns of recently deceased service members and, checking with funeral homes, was able to determine the soldier was Chief Warrant Officer Aaron A. Weaver, 32, who was killed when a UH-60 Blackhawk MEDEVAC helicopter crashed near Fallujah, Iraq, January 8, 2004. Eight other soldiers also died with him. As an Army Ranger, Weaver survived the October 1993 battle of Mogadishu in Somalia that was recounted in the book (and film) “Black Hawk Down” by former Inquirer staff writer Mark Bowden.

Two years later, NY Times photographer Todd Heisler, then with the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, shot one of my favorite photo essays of all time. With reporter Jim Sheeler, he followed a casualty notification officer - the person called upon to notify families of the deaths of their sons or daughters. Heisler won a Pulitzer Prize for what the judges called a "haunting, behind-the-scenes look at funerals for Colorado Marines who return from Iraq in caskets." (Sheeler also won a Pulitzer for Feature Writing). Sadly, the newspaper no longer exists, but the old website with their work has been maintained here.

Two years ago I also met and photographed Northeast Philadelphia Army Reservist Lt. Col. Jeffrey Voice, who works out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix- Lakehurst in NJ as both a casualty notification officer and a casualty assistance officer. He talked about the notification part of his job in a video, and I photographed him in the assistance role, helping the mother of a deceased Army lieutenant as he personally delivered a half dozen footlockers containing all her son's personal effects. Everything from his video games and old t-shirts, to the pillow that still held his scent. Those photos are here.

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I never could get the Army's help in identifying or contacting the escort I photographed but I've thought of him often over the past decade. He watched over the casket of a man he probably never knew. I also try think of Weaver, and the men and women like him. Men and women I don't know either. So I try to remember them. At least on Memorial Day.

Tom Gralish Inquirer Staff Photographer
About this blog

Tom Gralish is a general assignment photographer at The Inquirer, concentrating on local news and self-generated feature photos.

He has been at the paper since 1983, photographing everything from revolution in the Philippines to George W. Bush’s road to the White House to homeless people living on the street right outside his newspaper's front door. For his photo essay on Philadelphia’s homeless, he was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Award.

His weekly newspaper column, "Scene Through the Lens," takes a look at Philadelphia's urban landscape.

Gralish, along with Inquirer colleague and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Vitez, spent a year visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art to capture the stories and photos of "Rocky runners" who come from all over the world to climb the steps - just as Sylvester Stallone did in the Academy Award winning film, Rocky. Their book, Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps, was published in November 2006.

Reach Tom at tgralish@phillynews.com.

Tom Gralish Inquirer Staff Photographer
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