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Mother Encourages Photos of Coffin

To protest Pentagon policy, Nadia McCaffrey invites the media to disseminate images of her slain son's return from Iraq.

June 28, 2004|Regine Labossiere and Eric Slater | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The mother of a soldier killed last week in Iraq planned to openly challenge the Pentagon on Sunday night by not only allowing the media to take pictures and video as her son's coffin arrived at Sacramento International Airport, but by encouraging outlets to publish and distribute the images.

"I don't care what [President Bush] wants," Nadia McCaffrey said of the administration's policy that bans on-base photographing of coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

She planned to hold a short ceremony in front of reporters and photographers inside a Delta Airlines cargo terminal at the airport shortly before Flight 1583 was scheduled to arrive from Atlanta at midnight with the body of her son, National Guard Spc. Patrick McCaffrey, 34.

It was to be the most dramatic protest of the ban since April, when a website operator obtained images of returning coffins, and newspapers and television stations around the world published some of them.

Although her scheduled ceremony did not violate the ban -- which applies only to military facilities -- it was a protest against the policy, McCaffrey said.

Patrick "did not die for nothing," she said in a telephone interview. "The way he lived needs to be talked about. Patrick was not a fighter, he was a peacemaker."

Patrick McCaffrey was killed June 22 along with Lt. Andre Tyson, both members of the Santa Rosa-based 579th Engineer Battalion, when the two were ambushed by insurgents near Balad, Iraq.

McCaffrey invited the media to photograph the casket of her only child, who was the manager of a Silicon Valley collision repair company. He was married, had two children and had enlisted soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Patrick, his mother said, had grown deeply disillusioned about the war.

"He was really, really disappointed and hurt about the way Americans and Europeans were treated" in Iraq, McCaffrey said. When he called home, every two days, he also said he was ashamed by the allegations that American troops abused Iraqi prisoners.

"He said we had no business in Iraq and should not be there," McCaffrey told The Times in another interview, shortly after her son's death. "Even so, he wanted to be a good soldier."

On the eve of the war in Iraq, the Pentagon ordered all bases to adhere to a 2000 ban barring the photographing of caskets of soldiers killed overseas.

Since Sacramento Airport is not a military facility, it is under no obligation to keep the media away. Both the airport and the California National Guard worked Sunday to arrange for the ceremony.

The Pentagon's rules "are specifically for the airlift command, when [the caskets] are on the military plane," said Lt. Jonathan Shiroma of the California National Guard. "This is a commercial jet, so it's a different jurisdiction, so to speak. We cannot stop the media from filming."

Shiroma added that it was the Guard's policy to follow the wishes of the family -- sometimes helping keep the media at bay during services, sometimes helping arrange for cameras. A spokeswoman for the airport said that although its security personnel were helping with arrangements, the Guard was performing the majority of the work.

There appeared to be no precedent, however, for Sunday's planned protest against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Pentagon's ban, which has come under attack by both Republicans and Democrats, and some current and former military leaders.

Critics have accused the Bush administration of banning the photographs in an attempt to limit opposition to the war, whose death toll has risen to more than 850. They also criticized the administration after Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. A National Football League player, Tillman turned down a $3.6-million contract to join the Army, and after he was killed -- apparently by friendly fire -- the Pentagon published several pictures of Tillman marching and training, something it did not do when other soldiers died.

Patrick McCaffrey's body was to be driven in a motorcade from the airport to a funeral home in his hometown of Tracy, where services were scheduled for Thursday. His mother said she planned to speak out against the war at the service.

"This is enough," she said. "We have to react."

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