When soldiers are killed in action, units hold a simple ceremony in the combat zone. At the front of a chapel or a helipad or a makeshift open area, the unit places the deceased’s combat boots on a small box. Behind the boots they stand a rifle, muzzle down, on top of which rests the soldier’s helmet. The dead trooper’s dog tags hang from the pistol grip. After a brief remembrance, soldiers file to the front and stand before the makeshift shrine. They pause briefly, then render a final salute to the fallen comrade, who in most cases is already on his or her way home.
Halfway around the world, another ceremony takes place on the tarmac of Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where planes carrying fallen troops enter the United States. A chaplain reads a short prayer and a military team lifts a flag-draped metal case, carrying it from the plane to a nearby truck. After a brief pause, the truck drives slowly away, toward the base’s mortuary, where the body will be examined and prepared for burial.
The Dover port mortuary first opened in 1958, and in 2001 it became the only place where the bodies of troops killed in action return to the United States. In 2009, the ceremony on Dover’s tarmac, called a dignified transfer, became open to the media for the first time since 1991. The families of fallen service men and women have the option of inviting media to witness the return of their loved one to U.S. soil. In the past four years, 2,285 fallen military members have come through Dover’s mortuary, and the media has covered about 60 percent of the ceremonies.
Since dignified transfers became open to the press, the Associated Press has covered each one to which the media has been invited. Steve Ruark, a photographer for the AP, has made 278 trips to Dover, covering the return of 490 fallen troops. He has photographed the ceremonies in the middle of the day and in the dark of night, in snow and in the sweltering heat. “There have been lulls that last a fortnight and summer months that the stream of dead seemed it would never stop,” Ruark says.
For a photographer telling the story of how our fallen return home, the dignified transfer ceremonies present a significant challenge. Photographers are only allowed to stand in one area, on the other side of the bus from the grieving family. They sign an agreement that they will not photograph family members of the deceased.
So Ruark focused on framing his compositions in different ways. Sometimes he moved down the line with the honor guard; other times he photographed the tail fin of the airplane. “You hear the cries from the family members on the other side of that bus,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a regular cry; others it’s an outright screaming. But as a witness, I can’t pass it along. Instead I focus on the stoic young men who lift the remains of their comrade and carry him closer to his final resting place.”
The emotion of the ceremonies is often subtle. “Sometimes a quick glance by a serviceman toward the flag-draped case can speak visual volumes,” Ruark explains. “Most times the straight faces of the military men and women in front of me do not budge.”
For the first eight years after September 11, when dignified transfers were not open to the media, few saw the fallen troops return home. When the dignified transfer ceremonies became public, many considered the decision through the lens of politics. The image of young troops being carried home in flag-draped caskets has been a stirring symbol going back to the Civil War. But for Ruark, who has seen more dignified transfers than nearly any other civilian, sharing those images is part of a crucial undertaking. Whether or not people support the wars, he feels it is essential they understand their costs. “If something’s not photographed, it’s easy to deny,” Ruark says. “It’s a fact that Americans are getting killed overseas. Making people look at it makes them weigh the costs.”
Then there is another, more fundamental aspect to Ruark’s photographs of men and women who gave their lives for their country, carried by their comrades one more step toward their final resting place. The images tell a story that can’t be articulated from lists of casualty figures or a press release giving the most basic information about a fallen warrior. “I think people, to some degree, know we’re at war,” Ruak says. “People are going to die, but when they’re confronted with, ‘This is an individual with a name,’ that makes a difference.”
When fallen troops reach their final resting place, an honor guard removes the flag from the casket and folds it into a neat triangle. An officer then kneels beside the next of kin and offers the flag on behalf of “a grateful nation.” With troops dying on distant battlefields in wars increasingly out of the public eye, photographs of the simple transfer ceremony on the tarmac at Dover offer all of us a chance to pause, to recognize men and women who were deserving of a future, and who gave what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” The dignified transfers are one step in a fallen service member’s long journey home. Viewing the photos and remembering the people inside those caskets can be one small part in our role as a grateful nation.
Steve Ruark is based in his native city, Baltimore. He graduated in 2000 from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a Bachelor of Science in photojournalism.
Nate Rawlings is a writer at Time. He served two combat tours in Iraq as a U.S. Army officer and has reported for the magazine from Iraq and Afghanistan.