We have had a long tradition of coming together as a nation to memorialize our fallen heroes--the men and women whose lives were lost on the battlefield.
But at the outset of the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration decided to discard this important tradition and hide this honorable sacrifice. It banned cameras from Dover Air Force Base--where our fallen soldiers arrive in the United States. It also made it next to impossible for the press to get into the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Now, it's trying to keep the media away from Arlington National Cemetery.
We learned about what's going on at the cemetery from a whistleblower, Gina Grey, the public affairs director at Arlington. She admitted that new rules were put in place restricting where reporters could stand and how close cameras could come to the area. These limitations effectively banned the media from burial ceremonies.
At the time, Grey announced that she wanted to ease those restrictions. Grey later came forward to report that military officials were calling families on the phone and trying to coax them to prohibit news coverage of their sons' and daughters' burials.
Gina Grey spoke up--and the Bush administration recently responded by firing her.
The Pentagon asserts that its goal is to maintain the privacy of the deceased and support the wishes of the families. But we can hardly take that claim seriously since the current policy at the Pentagon is a departure from the past.
In 1983, President Reagan personally and publicly received the bodies of the 241 Marines who were killed by terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon. During the Kosovo conflict, President Bill Clinton stood on the tarmac to receive the fallen. Even during the first couple of years of the Afghanistan war, flag-draped coffins were filmed.
At the same time, the administration has resisted working with reporters on this issue. In 2004, a year after the invasion of Iraq, I introduced an amendment that would have allowed the press to document the return of our fallen heroes. My amendment was specifically worded so any media coverage of the deceased had to preserve the sanctity of the occasion and uphold the privacy of the families.
Nevertheless, rather than embrace my common-sense amendment, the Bush administration fought it.
I'm a veteran, I've gone to the funerals of the heroes who've lost their lives in Iraq, and I've been to Fort Dix in New Jersey to see thousands of soldiers depart for war zones in the Middle East. I know about the cost in blood and human treasure that military operations cause, and I've seen the pain and despair on the faces of the military families.
The president says we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to spread democracy and liberty, including a free press. It is ironic that our government is stifling a free press here. It's not right, and it's out of line with our values.
We must embrace the First Amendment in this country, not fear it. We must end the misguided policies used by this administration. And we must recognize the sacrifice our soldiers are making. They deserve nothing less.