U.S. Contractor Fired for Military Coffin Photo

4/22/04  By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. contractor and her husband have been fired after her photograph of 20 flag-draped coffins of slain U.S. soldiers going home from Iraq (news - web sites) was published in violation of military rules.

"I lost my job and they let my husband go as well," Tami Silicio, who loaded U.S. military cargo at Kuwait International Airport for a U.S. company, told Reuters in an e-mail response to questions.

The Pentagon (news - web sites) tightly restricts publication of photographs of coffins with the remains of U.S. soldiers and has forbidden journalists from taking pictures at Dover Air Force Base where the caskets of slain soldiers usually first stop on their return to the United States.

The military says the policy is in place to protect the privacy of families of those killed, but critics have said the rules are aimed at sanitizing the war for the public.

The Seattle Times printed Silicio's photograph last weekend and again on Thursday along with a story about her dismissal. The picture shows soldiers tending to 20 coffins completely covered with American flags on April 7 inside a military cargo plane at the Kuwait airport.

Silicio, who was raised in the Seattle area, was not paid by the newspaper for the picture that a friend in the United States, Amy Katz, passed on to the newspaper. Katz said she had since found an agent to sell the photograph.

STRICT POLICY

Silicio's former employer, Colorado-based Maytag Aircraft, told the paper she was dismissed for violating U.S. government and company regulations. The company did not return phone calls for comment.

The Pentagon has declined to comment on Silicio's case but spokesman James Turner said the policy of media coverage of such issues has been in effect since 1991.

"The principal focus and purpose of the policy is to protect the wishes and the privacy of the families during their time of greatest loss and grief," he said.

Turner said the department's no-coverage policy also included "interim stops" and not just Dover Air Force Base.

Katz said Silicio, whose own son died from an illness, took the picture to show the "respectful death ritual" for slain soldiers and not to make money or become famous. Other contractors and soldiers had taken similar pictures, she said.

Katz said her friend believed she was in Kuwait to "stand in for the parents who can't be here for the living and the fallen."

"Tami Silicio was only pledging allegiance to our flag and to our heroes laying beneath it," she said.

Violence has escalated over the past month in Iraq and the death toll among U.S. soldiers has risen quickly. Since the start of the war in March last year, 511 U.S. soldiers have been killed in combat, Pentagon figures show. More than 100 have been killed this month alone.

The Seattle Times stood by its decision to use the photograph. Managing Editor David Boardman said it was unfortunate Silicio was fired but she was aware of the consequences when the picture was published.

"This person is not an anti-war activist," Boardman said. "Her motivation was to share with the American people and families of service people both alive and dead how these bodies are being handled and the honor and respect they are given."