THOSE WHO THINK THAT COMMERCIAL AIRLINES ARE NOT SENDING back the remains of soldiers have outdated information or are wrong it turns out. I have been been flooded with information over the last day about the Department of Defense regulations regarding shipping back a soldier’s remains to the United States.
Here is some of what I have learned. The U.S. Army Human Resources Command maintains a good website designed to help those who have lost someone as a casualty in war. (ed note: Thanks to KS for sending this.)
Army Regulations 638-2 (Care and Disposition of Remains and Disposition of Personal Effects), Section 11-8 (2) reads:
Commercial transportation is the preferred method except when impractical, not available, or cost prohibitive.
The PDF that goes through the rules and regulations is very long, but I have it — and if anyone would like to have a copy — email me and I will forward it. The person who pointed out this regulation also noted that there may be other qualifications that modify or trump this regulation, such as classification of war dead.
My guess is that those of you who believed that the military always transported war dead to Dover, Delaware for processing, military honors, and the like may be correct in most cases — and this may still fit with normal regulations. Very few U.S. airlines are flying in and out of Iraq or Afghanistan.
The United Airlines crew members I was speaking to were flying in from Germany, and the soldier on this plane may have died from some injuries sustained in a war zone after which he died in a hospital in Germany or could have been a U.S. soldier who just had something happen to him or her in Germany. United personnel did tell me that they fly soldiers for the U.S. military in and out of Kuwait frequently.
Another note from JS, who I happen to know is a well placed guy in military and intelligence circles shared this:
You will recall the case in April of this year of Maytag Aircraft Corporation whose employee photographed some flag-draped coffins leading to a Pentagon effort to ban further such photographs. Maytag is one of six charter freight carriers with a DoD contract for the Gulf/Iraq theater that is not limited to, but includes, transport of military coffins.
So it does not seem in any way unusual that an American carrier from Europe would be handling a coffin from a DoD medical facility in Germany under a DoD freight contract.
Another note about the soldier-to-soldier side of war death reality comes from “K”:
Regarding the body of the soldier on the United flight — it’s possible that this was the case. The treatment for KIAs (Killed in Action) is what we see at Dover, but not every dead soldier gets that level of treatment.
When one of my unit’s soldiers died in a tank rollover during traiing in 1993, the body went back to the States via commercial airline. There was also a policy that bodies had to be accompanied by a live soldier on the same flight, and soldiers used to volunteer for this duty because you got a government-paid round trip back to the States. For the price of your vacation time, it was a free trip home. This was well-known in the Army 10 years ago, and I doubt it’s changed much.
I’d be that the soldier died from natural causes in Germany or during training there, but not in combat.

Another reader, TWB, sent this interesting note:
United States Army Memorial Affairs Activity Europe (USAMAA-E) in Landstuhl no longer sends all caskets to Dover for final preparations, but will in many cases send them directly to the families (according to the wishes of the Person Authorized to Direct Disposition, PAD). I don’t know the logistical specifics, but it would make more sense to send them direct-to-point via commercial air. So I have no trouble with the casket story.
I spent some time looking into this issue about the casket on the flight because I received numerous emails from people showing “A Soldier’s Story” to others who instantly rejected the story not about what the soldier told me — but rather about my comment that a deceased soldier was being transported back to the U.S. on that commercial flight.
I hope that this post provides useful detail to those of you who got mugged by friends saying that caskets just are not sent back to the U.S. the way I described. I think that this other material — but most importantly, the army regulation — clears that up.
I am still working on the subject of the DNA probes.
Two days to go.
— Steve Clemons