Air Force Finds Dead Americans Funny

Air Force personnel charged with transporting the bodies of American soldiers killed in action apparently finds dead American warriors funny.

Air Force personnel charged with transporting the bodies of American soldiers killed in action apparently finds dead American warriors funny.

Air Force Times (“Casket photo sparks investigation at Lackland“):

The commander of the 37th Training Group at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, has launched an investigation into a photo of 15 airmen posing with an open casket, in which another airman is posed with a noose around his neck and chains across his body.

“Da Dumpt, Da Dumpt …. Sucks 2 Be U” is written under the photo, which was emailed to Air Force Times.

In the picture, tech sergeants and staff sergeants stand with junior airmen surrounding the metallic casket, similar to those used to carry war dead home to the U.S.

The purpose of the photo, its inscription and its intended audience are not known. It surfaced one month after the public disclosure that the Air Force’s Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., had lost and mishandled the remains of hundreds of fallen troops.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley expressed regret Tuesday night that the photo might cause more turmoil for families of fallen troops.

“We take this matter seriously. [Air Education and Training Command] has initiated a commander directed investigation,” Donley said in a statement to Air Force Times. “Such behavior is not consistent with our core values, and it is not representative of the Airmen I know. It saddens me that this may cause additional grief to the families of our fallen warriors.”

The photo is dated Aug. 23 — more than two months before the Dover story broke — and appears with a logo reading “All American Port Dawgs” in the upper left corner. “Port Dog” is a nickname for aerial porters, who train at Lackland; it comes from an aerial port unit coin circulated in the early 1990s.

Whatever its intended purpose was, it proved offensive to at least one soldier with the 82nd Airborne Division.

“I cannot help but picture the faces of my dead [soldiers] that we drug out of burning vehicles, dug out from collapsed buildings,” Staff Sgt. Elias Bonilla wrote in an email to Air Force Times.

Bonilla said the photo, together with the Dover revelations, made him worry that he could not trust the Air Force with transporting the remains of his men, especially because the photo included noncommissioned officers.

“I cannot understand the behaviors of the United States Air Force,” he wrote. “I refuse to accept that military personnel could be so far removed from their own identity as a military unit to permit such disgraceful conduct.”

It should be noted that the airmen in question were in training for transport duty and not actually handling the remains of American soldiers and marines. Still, they clearly don’t see themselves as part of America’s warrior class or feel a connection to those who put their lives in peril in military service.

It’s possible that the airmen in question can be trained; they’re young and not yet fully integrated into the profession of arms. The NCOs in the photo should be court martialed and dishonorably discharged from the service under Article 134 of the UCMJ for conduct “to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces” and “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.”

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tommy Harris says:

    Isn’t this headline a bit misleading? We’re talking, by the author’s own admission, a small group of folks. While I think they should all be severely punished, the headline implies the entire Air Force is behind this.

  2. Vast Variety says:

    I was in the Air Force in the 90’s, right out of high school. I part of the Air Mobility Command Squadron stationed at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage. Fortunately I never had to deal with Human remains in the year and half or so I worked cargo processing. One of my friends though who had been working in one of the base dining halls as a cook was put through training for handling remains. I always thought it was odd that the same MOS that cooked our food was the same one that picked up our bodies.

  3. Who cooks up an idea like this, let alone gets everyone to go along? And then, after having taken the photo, doesn’t pause for thought before labeling it?

    “Hey, Frank, I have an idea…” The whole scenario is mind-boggling.

  4. mattb says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    But sadly not surprising … especially for folks who are engaged in more menial sorts of work. Having worked at a company that had a large manufacturing component, I can say that taking a trip to the line — and hearing some of the stuff that went on there — was positively mind boggling.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    Seriously, WTF?

  6. rodney dill says:

    Gallows humor taken too far. At first I thought it they were taking photo’s with real war dead, then I looked closer and read a little more.

  7. JKB says:

    There seems to be a problem with the training program. Lesson 1 should be ethics and propriety in the handling of deceased humans and human remains.

  8. MBunge says:

    “Still, they clearly don’t see themselves as part of America’s warrior class”

    They ARE part of America’s warrior class, something which you are not.

    Mike

  9. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Who cooks up an idea like this, let alone gets everyone to go along?

    Without condoning what they did, handling all of the bodies of American dead has to be an incredibly stressful experience, and people are going to deal with that stress via psychological dissociation. Gallows humor is one of the ways many people accomplish that.

    It’s similar to the way many medical students often pose for ‘wacky’ pictures with their medical cadavers, something that would likely engender outrage if those photos got out into the general public.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @MBunge: I’m a decorated combat veteran. The values of the warrior code were inculcated in me through years of training and experience and didn’t leave me when I left the Army.

    These young airmen, sadly, have demonstrably not embraced the code. The fact that their NCOs are participating with them, combined with a number of other incidents along these lines, make me seriously concerned that there’s a major problem with the Air Force itself, presumably stemming from that service’s subordinate role in the conflicts of the past decade.

  11. Liberty60 says:

    I understand gallows humor, and am willing to cut soldiers, first responders and ER personnel some slack in that regard.

    But there needs to be someone somewhere in the command chain who can teach them where the boundaries lie.

    As with most service scandals, I would look a bit higher up the tree for responsibility.

  12. mantis says:

    @MBunge:

    They ARE part of America’s warrior class, something which you are not.

    That was all kinds of stupid. Think before you type.

  13. mantis says:

    Without condoning what they did, handling all of the bodies of American dead has to be an incredibly stressful experience, and people are going to deal with that stress via psychological dissociation.

    This is true, but apparently the people in the photo don’t handle remains, as James notes:

    the airmen in question were in training for transport duty and not actually handling the remains of American soldiers and marines.

    No, they’re just assholes.

  14. Barb Hartwell says:

    This seems to be a growing trend, people are less empathetic to other`s feelings. Maybe we see and hear so much violence we are immune to it. I am not shocked hearing this as I should be. If this was during WW11 I wonder what we would be feeling.

  15. Franklin says:

    Many years ago, this might’ve just been a 3×5 in somebody’s desk drawer that gave ’em a little chuckle. I’m not going to go so far as to blame the leaker, but I doubt the folks in the picture intended this to go public and insult everybody. It’s certainly not the greatest humor, but I don’t really hold a grudge against people who make light of tough situations.

  16. john personna says:

    I suspect it is a case of humor as outlet for a horror which is hard to process. I’ve never been in armed forces, so I wouldn’t try to put my opinion out there with any great weight, but my impulse would be forgiving.

    I did hear an interesting conversation between two friends who had done honor guard duty at military funerals (decades apart). They surprised me by talking about getting the giggles right there in front of the casket, and how they dealt with it.

    So based on that, I kind of put these two in the same bucket. I think those kids get the horror, and are facing it with (inappropriate) collective giggles.

  17. sam says:

    @Franklin:

    It’s certainly not the greatest humor, but I don’t really hold a grudge against people who make light of tough situations.

    Did you miss this?

    It should be noted that the airmen in question were in training for transport duty and not actually handling the remains of American soldiers and marines.

    They don’t even have the weak excuse of “we’re in a tough situation”. Effing Air Force pussies.

  18. john personna says:

    @sam:

    I guess that didn’t sink in, sam. If they weren’t involved in funerals, then it is all hard to explain.

  19. MM says:

    @MBunge: You sure don’t get any brighter, do you?

  20. MM says:

    @Franklin: Gallows humor is one thing. It happens among anyone who has a position like this. People who deal with death and destruction use it to get by, but don’t typically advertise it to the outside as though they are proud of it.

    These guys aren’t yet dealing with death and destruction and seem to be proud of being so callous. That’s not gallows humor, that’s acting like a sociopath.

  21. To agree with many: gallows humor in one thing, posing for this photo and whatnot goes well beyond trying to deal with a difficult situation with levity.

  22. WR says:

    @MBunge: We don’t have a “warrior class.” Despite the yearnings of some perpetual adolescents in the Republican party, we are not Sparta. We have men and women who choose to go into the armed forces, where some will serve admirably, some will serve passibly, and some will wash out — just as with any other career choice.

  23. James Joyner says:

    @WR: It’s not quite that simple. While I’ve made similar arguments with regard to why re-instituting the draft is a bad idea and why the chickenhawk meme is stupid, there is in fact a very strong warrior culture among professional soldiers. It doesn’t necessarily exist in first-term enlistees or even junior officers but there is a pervasive code and set of values that has few analogues in civilian jobs. Respect for the fallen is high on the list.

  24. john personna says:

    The draft is a whole other topic, but for me it’s simple calculus: draftees prefer not to go to war, so a draft reduced incidence of war, at the margin.

  25. Boyd says:

    Your proposed punishment seems excessive to the extreme, on top of having a few practical difficulties. I could well be incorrect, but I doubt that one could even get a Big Chicken Dinner for a violation of Article 134, much less a Dishonorable Discharge.

    If these Civilians In Uniform had desecrated actual bodies, that would be one thing. Playing around with an unused casket doesn’t even come close to that level of concern.

  26. James Joyner says:

    @Boyd: 134 is a punitive article, so a BCD should be possible. But this likely doesn’t rise to the level of “dishonorable,” which is typically reserved for the most heinous crimes.

  27. WR says:

    @James Joyner: I don’t doubt that there’s a “warrior culture” in the forces. I also don’t doubt that there’s a “dentist culture” or a “hedge fund manager culture.” I know from first-hand experience there’s a “TV writer culture” and a separate “showrunner culture.”

    But culture or no, we don’t have a separate “warrior class,” as Mbunge would like to have it — especially with the implication that this class, a la Heinlein, is superior to the “civillian class.”

    My objection had nothing to do with your post, merely with Mbunge’s response, which echoes that Victor Davis Hanson-style longing to be one of the heroes of 300…

  28. Alanmt says:

    Put me in the “mildly inappropriate, but excusable” camp. James’ reaction seems extreme.

    No actual dead bodies abused. These were trainees, not even on the job yet. No Abu Ghraib here, folks. Move along.

  29. Andy says:

    James, it seems to me your position is a case of throwing the book at people for offending our sensibilities while bigger crimes go unpunished. As Col (now retired I think) Paul Yingling wrote four years ago, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” Nothing has really changed IMO.

    By all means reprimand the NCO’s and their officers, and retrain the airmen, but a court martial which would put a federal criminal conviction on their records for life? Is that really warranted?

    Yes, there is a “warrior” ethos but it has gone too far in my opinion and I speak as one who is currently serving in the reserve component and served in Afghanistan. We seem to have forgotten that we’re citizen soldiers first and “warriors” second. Increasingly we find ourselves further separated from the people we are ostensibly defending. Frankly, the military is not the same one you left in 1992.

    Additionally, and this will probably not be a popular viewpoint, but we need to be cautious about over-venerating our war dead. I’m going to quote a retired CSM with combat service in Korea and Vietnam:

    The dead don’t care. Is this about them or the living? This — to me — new found, last couple of wars, concern for mortuary affairs, remorse and so forth is IMO misplaced and very harmful. People die. In wars, people get killed and the encouragement of excessive memorialization and so forth is I believe dangerous. It is not good for the nation and it is in fact quite harmful to the armed forces.

    In a major war, there will not be time for memorial ceremonies, ramp ceremonies and such. In the armed forces in heavy conflict, the living do not have time to express excessive concern; if they do they risk themselves becoming casualties. The old guideline of “If the automatic weapon gunner gets killed, take his weapon and ammo and leave yours” is going to be quite valid in any good sized war. Many remains will not be recovered and many that are will be unidentifiable due to the mixing of body parts. There are not — or should not be — enough officers to provide one for every funeral. We need to get a grip on this excess. People care, I understand that, however it seems to be almost unreasoning in many cases these days.

    Some will say that we should pay proper respect when we can. Two points. What, really is proper and to whom? What is the danger of building expectation or habits that, when such excess is not possible, create bad attitudes…

    As a minor point, there also will not be time or people to do 15-6s on every death

    At the same time what do we do for tactical and strategic failures? The Navy is the only service that regularly relieves Commanding Officers for underperformance. To me it is just wrong to treat offensive behavior as a court-martial offense that should be punished to the maximum extent possible yet allow sub-standard senior leaders to retire. That works for a Praetorian guard, not a citizen army in a democracy.

  30. Alanmt says:

    Two objectionable things about the photo: The way the dead body is portrayed, and the writing across the bottom. I don’t see how everyone in the photo gets automatic moral responsible for the juvenile handwritten comment on the photo at some time after it is printed. The choice of centerpiece, while unit appropriate from a topical sense, obviously was a wrong choice from a matter of taste and respect. but hey, young people do stupid things, even trained and disciplined ones. Let’s not dismantle the air force or even ruin these people’s lives. There are a lot of better directions and reasons for a witch hunt, if one is so inclined.

  31. Barb Hartwell says:

    I don`t want these young peoples` lives to be ruined either I feel they have not been trained at home as children. I see kids everyday and the lack of respect they have for everyday things. Things my generation would have got ourselves slapped silly for..

  32. SKI says:

    @Alanmt: FYI – Not an actual dead body but a colleague acting as one.

  33. Rufio211 says:

    Wow, this whole situation is getting blown out of proportion. I went to that tech school and I know exactly the photo means. It is not saying if you died in battle, it sucks to be you. You have to know the reason why this picture was taken to understand it and i will explain. These photos are taken as you graduate your tech school are hung in the hallways of the schoolhouse for students to look at while they are on break in between class sessions. On each picture, the class puts their class motto. Obviously this classes motto was “it sucks to be you”. A LMFAO song. What they are implying is that it sucks to be the student who is looking at this picture while they are on break from class. My goodness people, way to jump to conclusion on this one and paint these Airmen and NCOs out to like the Army folks in Guantanamo Bay. Keep in mind it was the Army that started the negative press on this photo to begin with.

  34. Tim Bhan says:

    I am a veteran Aerial Porter. By veteran I mean that I have deployed on 13 separate occasions to multiple AORs, supporting different operations for varying periods of time. I have been responsible or part of teams sending roughly 250 fallen troops home. This incident weighs heavily with me and upon seeing this photo my gut reaction is “I am sure there is a very stupid excuse for this”. This gives our carrier field a black eye when we have respectfully performed the job of shipping home all of the casualties who fell while in the AOR. It is a duty we take seriously, and the greatest badge of honor we have. Know that these individuals do not accurately represent our carrier field and our contributions to making the mission of getting America’s fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, DOD Contractors and fallen coalition members home to their families.

  35. Henry says:

    It doesn’t freaking matter what the blog says, obviously it’s just an opinion by the point of view of the author. Just by looking at the picture alone, does this look funny to you? How does that airman laying in the casket felt before he posed there? OMG Air Force is going down. Airmen are just very simple minded that they raised their arms forming an X [Content removed due to violation of site policies]

  36. Rufio211 says:

    That doesn’t stand for x nigga…that the signal loadmasters and aerial porters use for “stop”.

  37. Nikki says:

    @Rufio211: BTW, Henry is using racist slang to describe the black airman on the left. He left out a “period” between “X” and “nigga.” Frankly, I’m amazed the OTB folks have left this comment up.

  38. rodney dill says:

    @Nikki: Don’t be too amazed. Moderation isn’t exactly an automatic process. For myself I usually try not to alter comments under the posts of the other authors. Did you send James an email with your concern via the contact information at OTB?

  39. meisterschaft says:

    As far as I am concerned a photo is just a photo, distasteful I will give you that. But none of us know the context of their actions. Once we hear the reason behind these actions then we all can come to informed and logical conclusions as to why.

    Oh…that would actually imply that most of the readers here are educated, respectful, and willing to show self control. Something that most Americans on these boards have lost throughout the years.

  40. Joni Vera says:

    If you look at that picture closely, you will notice the shadows are way off for the 2 men with one knee down. I do believe someone super imposed the image of the “dead” soldier in the casket over something else that was there. A good way to tell, is to open the image in photoshop and apply an exposure filter. This image is a fake.

  41. Audrey says:

    @James Joyner: So are we making this an Army Vs. Air Force thing now? Every branch of our military has made mistakes please don’t misconsture the Air Force on this subject, because if we look back in the history of the Army there has also been some uneducated decisions made on their parts too. I agree that this photo is extremely distasteful and degrading for our military; however I really don’t think you have any right to sit here say that the Air Force has had serious issues for the past decade! Seriously our Military has had some issues, let’s not be small minded and nit-pick the Air Force.

  42. Eric says:

    @James Joyner:
    First off I’m so happy for you that you served four years during Desert Storm (the shortest and least amount of combat seen in any conflict to date) and that you were handed some medals in remembrance for that (Army Commendation Medals and Bronze Stars were handed out to E5/E6 and above in mass quantities for the Liberation of Kuwait). Is that truly a decorated combat veteran as you so egotistically called yourself? You may have been taught Warrior Ethos in basic training or perhaps your MOS school, but did you really apply it? I think a more realistic approach would be that you felt it was your duty to volunteer your services to the Army, you showed up and sat around wondering when the war was going to start, and when you finally got the word that the ground offensive was a green light, it was over.

    I will agree, that if this picture is in fact a real picture, that the NCOs were out of line. I say “real picture” because it blatantly appears photoshopped. In fact, if you open the picture on any computer (Mac or Windows) and adjust the tint, contrast, gradient filling, etc. the entire picture, with exception to the area where the two males are kneeling, change whatever is you are adjusting. For the sake of argument, try to adjust the tint. The area by the kneelers stays pitch black. It’s obvious this was “painted” with the basic black color in a paint program, and by a very amateur person at that (it would also explain the pixelation not so commonly seen this day and age). That being said, you are discrediting the ENTIRE Air Force based off of this picture? Is this your cheap way to entice people to read your worthless words of “wisdom”? Quite honestly, I think you are a discredit to any other person who holds various degrees in political sciences.

    Oh, and you also state that “service’s subordinate role in conflicts of the past decade” have stemmed major problems. Let’s see, the US Air Force and US Navy brought all the artillery, vehicles, and personnel to the front for the Iraq invasion. The US Air Force is serving right along side the Army in the Afghanistan/Iraq AORs. The US Air Force is flying supplies, personnel, equipment in and out of the theaters on a daily basis. Just how “subordinate” do you think the Air Force really is? Just because the Air Force is the youngest military branch does not mean they are the slowest, dumbest, or whatever else you may be implying by your cheap low blow comments.

  43. James Crabtree says:

    Lotta knee jerking goin’ on here! Does even one of you responders or bloggers have any idea of why this picture was taken? Do you really have so little confidence in the integrity of the military members portrayed? And if not, do you really think senior NCO’s would be so dumb as to take a picture meant to represent disrespect for war dead, thus potentially destroying their own careers even if they did hold contempt for said war dead?
    This picture was OBVIOUSLY not a joke about war dead! It might have been intended as an anti-drinking and driving poster. I see such things around military bases every day, including vehicles in which military members died being prominently displayed. Or there might be some other purpose about which we know nothing. But that’s the point; we know nothing about this photo.
    It is my belief that Sgt Bonilla either intentionally, in order to stir up trouble, or through ignorance misinterpreted this photo and, as with the Air force Times journalist who wrote the article, failed to do due diligence in researching the intent of this photo. Do I seriously believe it in any way intended disrespect toward war dead? MOST EMPHATICALLY NOT!
    As an aside, everyone in the photo is readily identifiable. The investigation has been going on for a week now. They know who the folks were and why they took the photo. If not, they are more incompetent than many of you seem to think they are. Why haven’t they either cleared this up or made public any charges resulting? Because there is now a “cover your six” attitude. Too many people like the commenters here have blown this all out of proportion and they feel the truth won’t be believed. So they are looking for someone to hang to feed the angry beasts!