Chaplains offering real prayers at fake POW/MIA rites?

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Dang! Just when you thought that the news couldn’t get any weirder and darker for the U.S. military and, in particular, for military veterans. I’ll get to the chaplains in a minute.

First of all, here’s a shout out to NBC News for covering this story and, whether it was intentional or not, including the highly relevant religious angle.

So what’s the lede? A branch of the U.S. Department of Defense has, for seven years, been holding fake memorial rites marking the “arrival” of the remains of soldiers who died in battlefields during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, etc.

After NBC News raised questions about the arrival ceremonies, the Pentagon acknowledged Wednesday that no honored dead were in fact arriving, and that the planes used in the ceremonies often couldn’t even fly but were towed into position.

The solemn ceremonies at a military base in Hawaii are a sign of the nation’s commitment to returning and identifying its fallen warriors. The ceremonies have been attended by veterans and families of MIAs, led to believe that they were witnessing the return of Americans killed in World War II, Vietnam and Korea.

The ceremonies also have been known, at least among some of the military and civilian staff here, as The Big Lie.

The reality on the ground is actually quite complex, because the flag-drapped “coffins” are not empty.

But the remains are not “arriving” and the remains of the soldiers in the transfer cases may or may note be from the battlefields that are announced in the ceremony. Or the remains may have come from those battlefields months earlier. Or, or, or — you get the picture.

So the tears in the eyes of the elderly veterans watching the rites are real, but just about everything else in these (warning, bureaucratic speech alert) “symbolic tributes” is a mixture of fiction or, at best, vague information.

Check this out:

Other veterans, a former POW’s wife, even the bagpiper at the ceremonies — all told NBC they had assumed the arrival ceremony meant that soldiers’ remains were actually arriving. They said they found the ceremony to be moving.

“It was a very humbling experience for me,” said bagpiper Alan Miyamura. “The thing that I remember most vividly is the silence. … It meant respect and a feeling that these soldiers are welcomed home.”

The ceremony “makes me very proud that our country does such a thing,” said Carole Hickerson, whose first husband was a POW in the Vietnam War. She helped design the black POW/MIA flag. “You don’t know how important a funeral is until you don’t have one.”

And the religious ghost in this story, which NBC briefly mentions?

That has to do with the content of the rites themselves and the members of the military community that carry them out.

Wait for it.

Here’s what the public has seen at the ceremonies, usually held about four times a year.

A C-17 military transport aircraft was parked, its ramp down, outside hangar 35 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. At precisely 9 a.m., after generals and other dignitaries were introduced, a military chaplain offered a prayer, the audience sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and a Marine bugler played “Taps.” Then a military honor guard in dress uniforms carried flag-draped transfer cases, which look like coffins, down the ramp and across in front of the audience. The cases were placed in the back of blue buses and driven away.

The emcee, reading from an official script, thanked the audience for “welcoming them home.” The script continued, “After removal from the aircraft, the remains will be taken to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s Central Identification Laboratory. There … scientists will begin the identification process.”

Here’s the obvious question: Just who is “in” on the details of The Big Lie and who is not? It’s one thing to ask about the generals and political dignitaries. But, to get specific, do the pastors, priests, rabbis and other clergy know that their “arrival” prayers for the honored dead are part of the ruse?

Yes, I think it would have been appropriate to ask that question to the chaplaincy supervisors at the bases involved in the rites. I would assume that the chaplains were kept in the dark, but who knows, in these strange times?

I think it is good that NBC News dared to cover this story and the same goes for the editors at Stars & Stripes, who also picked up this story and ran with it. I have no idea how I would feel about this if I was a World War II vet or part of a POW/MIA family that has spent decades seeking closure.

And I don’t know how I would feel if I was a clergy man or woman who was asked to sanctify these “rites.” I wish journalists had talked with some of them.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    It seems weird that the services would not be explained. Usually the military is very open about explaining the nature and symbolic meaning of all ceremonies it celebrates. Something like “Now that we know these remains are those of our American fallen, we symbolically welcome them home,” would be pretty easy.

    But possibly nobody wanted to be too open about the use of non-flying planes as giant hearses, because a normal hearse would be more normal and use less gas? But they could just call them “chapel planes” or something, after all.

    Probably somebody in charge was an idiot at some point, and made statements out of his butt about the ceremony; and probably the other guys had to cover up for the general(‘s) stupidity until everybody had forgotten who they were covering up for, and why.

  • James Patton

    It has been my experience that Chaplains are first and foremost soldiers. Everything else about them are just means to achieve the goals of the military.

    • tmatt

      What does this have to do with the journalism issue in the post? What is the connection that you see? That the chaplains just obeyed orders? How do we know that?

      • Brett

        It’s almost like the people who wrote the story were so stunned by the overall weirdness that they couldn’t do their jobs fully. For whatever the reason, you’ve nailed it: The religious dimension of this story has a *huge* role in understanding its full impact and NBC’s omission of it hampers that understanding. They don’t even have the excuse of complete omission; the mention of the chaplain’s prayer means they pretty much looked right at this angle and didn’t see it

      • James Patton

        Perhaps it would behove you to ask an actual Chaplain. I did my duty in the first Gulf War and shared my insight with you to what I experienced. What you consider to be “weird and dark” for the military is nothing new for our service members.

        • tmatt

          My suggestion is that the reporters doing the actual report needed to talk to a real chaplain involved in the story.

        • http://eacafe.blogspot.com/ Oo_oc_oO

          Fake ceremonies are nothing new?

          • James Patton

            No, in fact they are actually very common, having participated in several during my 10 years of service.

  • Mack

    Any Viet-Nam veteran long ago came to expect this sort of thing. One would hope this particular narrative is an error, but no surprise if the events are as stated.


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