Honor all those who die in service to our country
The Washington Post
By Terry Newell, Friday, April 30, 2011, Page A15
When Marine Cpl. Jamie R. Lowe was killed in Afghanistan in January 2010, he was brought
back home with a military escort and an American flag draped over his casket. He received a
military funeral, with honor guard, and was eligible for a plot in a national cemetery. A Gold Star
was given to his family. All of these were honors due for the ultimate sacrifice he made for his
country. He deserved our respect, our homage and our profound gratitude. We planned for it —
and made sure he got it.
When Victoria DeLong, who served in the U.S. Cultural Affairs Office in Port-au-Prince, died in
Haiti during its devastating earthquake the same month, it was up to her agency to decide
whether and how to honor her. No government policy or program ensured an escort or provided
a flag for her as a civilian worker. No government appropriation paid for a burial plot. No one
was designated in advance to attend the funeral, thank the bereaved on the part of a grateful
nation or present a Gold Star. If you are a civil servant and you die in service to your country,
you also deserve our respect, homage and profound gratitude. But you may well not get it.
Some 2,085 federal civil servants lost their lives in the line of duty between 1995 and 2007, John
Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, noted in a speech to the 2009
Excellence in Government Conference. Some have died in war zones, others in what we thought
were peaceful places — Oklahoma City, Nairobi, New York, Austin. Whether and how we honor
those people who did not wear a military uniform is left to chance.
It might be tempting to explain away this contrast between how we honor civilians and those in
uniform who die in service to the United States by saying that the latter sign up for a dangerous
task. But a life lost in service to the nation is not less worthy a life because of this distinction.
Nor should we be less grateful. As Berry said, “Just as we owe our men and women who die in
uniform more than we can ever repay, we owe these non-combatant workers a debt of honor as
well, and I challenge anyone to say their lives are any less dear.”
Yet we don’t act as if this were true. A bill introduced in the 110th Congress to “authorize the
presentation of flags at the funerals of civilian Federal employees engaged in the support of
military operations who have died in combat zones in the course of their duties” never made it to
a vote in either house. No bill to honor with flags those civilian federal employees who have died
in non-combat zones has been proposed in the current session of Congress.
All those who serve our nation take the same oath of office. Whether they die in a combat zone,
in a foreign embassy in a nation at peace or in an IRS building targeted by a citizen who hates
the government, they have died in service and honor to that oath. Simple justice demands we
return the honor they have given.
When you go to your local post office to request a flag for the coffin of a current or former
member of the military, you get one. If you go to your local post office for a flag for a civilian
worker who has died in the line of duty, you get nothing. That must change.
The writer was director of training for the U.S. Education Department from 1986 to 1993 and
was dean of faculty at the Federal Executive Institute from 1994 to 2004.