Officials at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio are investigating an incident in which more than a dozen airmen posed for a photo next to a metal case used to transport deceased service members home from war.
In the photo, an airman can be seen at the center of a group of uniformed comrades, posing inside the open case with a white noose and black chain around his neck.
“Da Dumpt, Da Dumpt. Sucks 2 Be U!” is written at the bottom of the photo.
“We take this matter seriously,” Air Force Secretary Mike Donley said in a statement Thursday. Donley said the Air Force had “initiated a commander-directed investigation.”
“Such behavior is not consistent with our core values, and it is not representative of the airmen I know,” Donley wrote. “It saddens me that this may cause additional grief to the families of our fallen warriors.”
The airmen pictured were part of an air transportation training unit stationed at Ft. Lee, Va., working under the command of the 37th Training Group at Lackland. The groups traditionally take informal photos at the end of their training, a spokesman said, but it was not clear if this was such a photo.
The picture was taken Aug. 23 at the Ft. Lee Air Transport Apprentice School and posted on Facebook in October, said Gerry Proctor, a Lackland spokesman. It went viral this week, prompting Air Force officials to launch the internal investigation.
The airmen were participating in a monthlong aerial porter training program for the 345th Training Squadron at Ft.Lee, where specialists learn to manage freight and transfer cases, Pentagon spokesman Todd Spitler said.
Proctor said the photo was posted on individual Facebook pages, not official Air Force pages. He said it was not clear when or why it was removed, but that it did not meet Air Force guidelines for social media posts.
“It doesn’t meet our values or the expectations that we have for the people in the Air Force,” he said.
Proctor declined to say whether the airmen in the photo have been cooperating with the investigation. So far, he said none has been disciplined.
“It’s premature to talk about punishment because the investigation is ongoing,” Proctor said.
He said the investigation will take a minimum of several weeks.
"The Air Force encourages airmen to engage and tell the Air Force story through social media, but they are reminded to do so in ways that don't discredit themselves or our service," Spitler, the Pentagon spokesman, told The Times via email. "As with most choices, they take personal responsibility to use their best judgment, as there may be consequences with what is posted in a public forum."
The airmen in the photo had not been trained to perform the traditional transfer ceremony for fallen service members during the course they attended in Texas, but would learn to do so later -- hence the presence of transfer cases, Proctor said.
“It is not a casket, not a coffin — it’s just for transporting human remains. No one is buried in those," Proctor said. "It’s just there so students know what one looks like.”
Proctor said the meaning of the photo was unclear. For instance, it was not clear why the airmen have their arms crossed on their chests in an “X,” the signal for "stop" used on flight lines.
“What the meaning is is very cryptic,” Proctor said.
The Air Force has faced recent controversy concerning the handling of service members' remains at its Dover, Del., mortuary, where an investigation indicated remains were repeatedly dumped at a nearby landfill. A congressional panel investigating the Dover Air Force Base Mortuary will meet for the first time next week.
The controversial Facebook photo came to light in part because of the outrage it sparked among service members already incensed about the Dover controversy.
“I cannot help but picture the faces of my dead [soldiers] that we drug out of burning vehicles, dug out from collapsed buildings,” Staff Sgt. Elias Bonilla wrote in an email to Air Force Times, part of a Gannett Co. newspaper group that covers military news.
Bonilla emailed the photo to Air Force Times after receiving it from a former soldier and Army spouse. He said that combined with the Dover revelations, the photo made him worry that he could not trust the Air Force with transporting the remains of his men.
“I cannot understand the behaviors of the United States Air Force,” he wrote. “I refuse to accept that military personnel could be so far removed from their own identity as a military unit to permit such disgraceful conduct.”
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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston
Photo: A page from the Army Times website showing a Facebook photo that went viral.