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Defense Dept. reverses ban on military coffin photos

A decision by the Obama administration to reverse an 18-year-old ban on photographing the flag-draped coffins of troops arriving back on U.S. soil has the support of several Long Island families who have lost relatives to war.

"Giving the family the option gives them the ability to determine how they want their son honored," said Daniel Murphy, of Wading River. His son, Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy, was killed in Afghanistan in 2005.

During a Pentagon news conference Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that photographers will be allowed to document the return of fallen troops to the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, as long as their family members agree.

"I have decided that the decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should be made by those most directly affected - on an individual basis - by the families of the fallen," Gates said, according to a Department of Defense Web site.

A Gates-appointed panel will "under short deadlines" make recommendations for implementing the change, which came about after President Barack Obama asked Gates to review the policy.

The ban, imposed in 1991 by George H.W. Bush, has long been controversial, with supporters saying it protects the privacy of grieving families, and opponents saying it hides the human cost of war from the American consciousness.

Murphy and several of his son's relatives traveled to Dover in 2005 when the coffin bearing the body of Michael P. Murphy was carried with ceremonial honors from the hold of an arriving aircraft.

"We would not have minded had the press been there to welcome him back to the United States," said Murphy, whose son was awarded the nation's highest combat award - the Medal of Honor. "Some families felt they were sneaking their loved ones back into he United States and not giving them the honor and respect of being welcomed back as heroes."

JoAnn Lyles, of Sag Harbor, said lifting the ban is needed to allow the public to see the war's impact in human terms. Her son Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter was 19 when he was killed last year while protecting fellow Marines in Iraq."Sometimes it feels like the war is a show on television and you forget that they are real lives that are lost," said Lyles, whose son was awarded the Navy's highest award - the Navy Cross. "Seeing caskets being off loaded from a war zone is needed. People need to know that casualties exist."

Glynn Heighter, whose brother Cpl. Raheen Heighter was the first Long Island resident killed in Iraq, expressed similar sentiments.

"You don't want to whitewash it," said Heighter, whose Cpl. Heighter's Barber Shop in Bay Shore is named in his brother's honor. "Those are the realities of war. People have to know."

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