Thursday, November 30, 2006

Coffin draped with an American flag came down a luggage conveyor

Soldier's coffin at center of furor

(November 30, 2006) — A woman says she saw a soldier's flag-draped coffin put into a cart with passengers' baggage last month at the Greater Rochester International Airport, shocking her and other onlookers.

"It looked awful, just awful," Cynthia Hoag, 56, of Dansville, Livingston County, said Wednesday. "Maybe we made too much out of it, but it was very disturbing to us. If that had been my son, I would have been very upset."

Officials dispute Hoag's story, saying it is implausible. They did not disclose the name of the fallen soldier, but he appears to be Army Sgt. 1st Class Tony Knier of Sabinsville, Pa., who was killed in Iraq on Oct. 21.

A Pennsylvania funeral director confirmed on Wednesday night that he transported Knier's body from the Rochester airport on Oct. 27, the day Hoag was there. Monroe County officials said the coffin was being taken to Pennsylvania.

Knier's mother was appalled when she was told Wednesday night that the incident might have involved the body of her 31-year-old son, a husband and father of three young children. Knier's funeral was Oct. 31 near his home in Wellsboro, Pa.

"If that's what that lady saw, I'm outraged. I'm really upset, because my son died for this country. " said Betty Tidwell, who lives in Tennessee. "He gave all he had to this country. And for them to do that to him, that just upsets the hell out of me."

Hoag wrote an op-ed essay that was published Tuesday in the Democrat and Chronicle, describing what she says she saw.

Based on Hoag's account, Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks called on the federal government Wednesday to change procedures to prevent a similar incident, saying what happened is an "outrage."

Hoag explained that as she waited at the airport with friends, she saw a soldier in uniform standing at attention near a commercial airplane as the luggage came off. She then saw a coffin draped with an American flag come down a luggage conveyor on the runway.

The coffin was put into a baggage cart with other luggage and driven off with the uniformed soldier in the cart.

"I saw the casket of a fallen soldier, saluted by a lone soldier, and then placed in a baggage cart," she wrote. "Baggage."

Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith was unaware of the incident late Wednesday but said the witness' description doesn't correlate with military procedure.

Remains from a soldier killed in Iraq are taken to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, then usually flown to a soldier's home, she said. Military escorts accompany each flight, whether domestic or military. When the coffin reaches the home area, it is met by an honor guard of two people and then transported to a funeral home, she said.

"We do everything to ensure that proper respect is given to the fallen service members and their families," Smith said.

Airport officials said it's a problem that notification of the airport is not required when a soldier's coffin is en route. Airport Director David Damelio said he wasn't aware that the soldier's body had been transported through Rochester until Hoag's letter was published.

"We're not notified unless the military or the family chooses to notify us," he said, adding that the airport often makes special arrangements at the request of soldiers' families.

Yet Damelio said Hoag's story doesn't make sense and said the Defense Department has always shown great care with soldiers' coffins.

Procedurally, a coffin wouldn't come down a luggage belt with other baggage, he said.

Also, a baggage cart isn't large enough to fit a coffin and other luggage, he said.

"It couldn't happen. It's physically impossible," Damelio said.

He said the airport was unable to find video of the incident.

Nonetheless, the witness' description prompted Brooks to urge the Defense Department to change policies on the transportation of the coffins of dead soldiers.

"It is unfathomable to me that our federal government would allow a fallen military hero to be returned home in this manner, and then transport him along with someone's checked luggage," Brooks, a Republican, wrote in a terse letter to the Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

Brooks said the Defense Department should be required to notify an airport when the coffin of a fallen soldier is being transported so that proper arrangements are ensured.

"I am asking you to do whatever is necessary to end this abhorrent practice," Brooks wrote. "Our military personnel and our veterans deserve better."

below: mosiac of fallen American soldiers in the Iraq war

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