A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Change in Military Funeral Protocol?


Q: Did Obama order the military to drop the words “on behalf of the president of the United States” when presenting the flag to the next of kin at funerals?

A: A chain email that makes that claim is wrong. Spokespersons for the Defense Department and the armed forces say that no change was ordered.

FULL QUESTION

This letter has been circulating lately. Is it true?

Dear Sean,

Today I was incensed at the conclusion of a traditional Serbian-Orthodox funeral for my beloved 85 year old uncle, Daniel Martich, who proudly served in the US Army during The Korean Conflict. During the committal service at a Pittsburgh cemetery the local military detachment performed their ritual, then folded and presented the American Flag to my aunt.

[EET ]

As I’m sure you have witnessed during military funerals, a soldier bends to one knee and recites a scripted message to a surviving relative that begins ‘On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, I wish to present you with this flag in appreciation for your husband’s service …’. However, today the dialogue was ‘On behalf of the Secretary of Defense and a grateful nation …’ After the service I approached the soldier who presented the flag to my aunt to inquire about the change in language. His response was “The White House notified all military funeral service detachments to immediately remove ‘the President’ and insert ‘the Secretary of Defense’. I couldn’t believe what I heard and the soldier smiled and said, “You can draw your own conclusion sir but that was the order”. He, too, was ashamed of what he was required to say.

This president has taken off the gloves. My only response to this endless cesspool of Anti-American rhetoric dripping from his mouth is to borrow a phrase (with one minor change) uttered by another temporary Washington resident living in government housing: “Today for the first time in my adult life I was ASHAMED of my country”. I did not serve in the military but my love of country parallels that of people like my late uncle who bled Red, White and Blue. As a second generation Serbian-American who’s heritage produced many patriotic military men and women who fought for freedom both in The United States as well as in the former Yugoslavia (most recently in Kosovo against the slaughter of Serbs by Muslim extremists) I implore you to make the American people aware of this little-known or, at least, publicly acknowledged fact.

May God Bless you and your family during these difficult times. Your voice of reason is a welcome change from the insanity plastered across the country by the liberal media. Keep up the great work and thank you for your service to our country.

Sincerely,

John G. Martich

Weirton, WV[/EET]

FULL ANSWER

This email, claiming that the White House ordered a change to the language used during the presentation of burial flags at funerals with military honors, has gone viral. It has landed in our inbox dozens of times, and it’s making the rounds on social networking websites as well. But it’s not true.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Defense told FactCheck.org that the agency has not received, published or directed any change recently in the wording used during funeral services with military honors.

No Change in Protocol

The email claims that an unidentified soldier said that members of the military assisting in funerals were directed by the White House to cease referring to the president when presenting the burial flag to a deceased veteran’s next of kin.

Email excerpt: As I’m sure you have witnessed during military funerals, a soldier bends to one knee and recites a scripted message to a surviving relative that begins “On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, I wish to present you with this flag in appreciation for your husband’s service … .” However, today the dialogue was “On behalf of the Secretary of Defense and a grateful nation … .” After the service I approached the soldier who presented the flag to my aunt to inquire about the change in language. His response was “The White House notified all military funeral service detachments to immediately remove ‘the President’ and insert ‘the Secretary of Defense.’ I couldn’t believe what I heard and the soldier smiled and said, “You can draw your own conclusion sir but that was the order”. He, too, was ashamed of what he was required to say.

But Maj. Monica Matoush, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, told us that no change has been ordered. “While there have been some inconsistencies at the unit level in reciting the appropriate verbiage, neither the Department of Defense nor the services have received, published or directed any recent change,” Matoush said.

She explained that each branch of the armed forces is responsible for coming up with its own protocol, including suggested statements to be made when presenting a burial flag to the next of kin. That guidance is usually made available in a manual on drills and ceremonies provided by each individual branch, she added. But “there is no [Department of Defense] standardized verbiage to accompany a flag presentation for a veteran buried with military funeral honors,” she said.

Some people very well may have witnessed a soldier bending to one knee and reciting a message that begins “on behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation,” as the email claims. That’s because some branches of the military do suggest that their servicemembers present the flag that way. But not all branches of the military suggest mentioning the president.

A Marine Corps order (MCO 3040.4) dated March 1, 2011, states that when presenting the flag, casualty assistance officers may say: “On behalf of the President Of the United States, the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation of your (relationship) service to Country and Corps.” That’s an alternate suggestion from the Marine Corps manual on drills and ceremonies (paragraph 25006), which suggests a statement such as: “On behalf of the President, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Marines everywhere, please accept this flag in memory of the honorable and faithful service performed by (relationship).”

However, the manual that the Navy’s ceremonial units currently go by (NAVPERS 15555D) includes “sample wording” that says: “On behalf of a grateful nation and a proud Navy, I present this flag to you in recognition of your (relationship)’s years of honorable and faithful service to his/her country.” Cullen James, a Navy Personnel Command spokesman, said that an updated manual is in the works, but that no one has been instructed to not bring up the president. “Ceremonial teams may be using different language,” he said, but “there is no direction to not say ‘on behalf of the president.’ ”

And the Army’s field manual on drills and ceremonies (FM 3-21.5) does not specifically mention referencing the president during the presentation either. In chapter 14, section 5, paragraph (r) and chapter 14, section 6, paragraph (d), the Army field manual suggests that the officer presenting the flag say something like: “Sir/Ma’am, this flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.” The Army’s suggested wording is particularly noteworthy since, according to the email, the funeral service was for an Army veteran.

Joe Davis, director of public affairs for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that the organization had also received the email several times. While unsure of the email’s origin, Davis said that “its message is false.”

Email Origin

The version of the email we received was signed with the name and location, “John G. Martich, Weirton, WV.” There were also two telephone numbers listed in the email. We called both — one didn’t work and the other went to voice mail. We left a message, but never received a return call.

Although Martich did not respond to us, we found evidence that he’s a real person who may simply have repeated uncritically something that was told to him by a misinformed soldier. TruthorFiction.com, a website that provides information about Internet rumors, said that it spoke to Martich and that he stood by the account in the email. We also found two obituaries for a Daniel Martich, one published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the other on the website of the Maloy-Schleifer Funeral Home, that match the description of the deceased “uncle” described in the email. According to the obituaries, Daniel Martich served as an Army policeman during the Korean War, was 85 years old at the time of his death, was buried at a Pittsburgh cemetery and had family in Weirton, W.Va.

We can’t say for sure what the soldier told Martich, since we weren’t there. But what we can say, based on what Department of Defense and armed forces officials told us, is that there was no order from the White House to alter the language used during funeral ceremonies.

— Dave Bloom, with D’Angelo Gore

Sources

Devine, Laurel, Lt. Col., Army Public Affairs spokeswoman. Email to FactCheck.org. 30 Sep 2011

Lainez, Eileen, Defense Department spokeswoman. Email to FactCheck.org. 3 Oct 2011.

Matoush, Monica, Maj., Defense Department spokeswoman. Email to FactCheck.org. 7 Oct 2011.

James, Cullen, Navy Personnel Command spokesman. Email to FactCheck.org 7 Oct 2011.

Commandant of the Marine Corps. Marine Corps Order 3040.4 (Marine Corps Casualty Assistance Program. Memo. 1 Mar 2011, accessed 7 Oct 2011

Department of the Army. Drills and Ceremonies (FM 3.21-5). Apr 2006, accessed 7 Oct 2011.

Bureau of Naval Personnel. Navy Military Funerals (NAVPERS 15555D). First Edition 1980, Last Revised 1999, accessed 7 Oct 2011

Rogers, Ann. “Obituary: Daniel ‘Dragan’ Martich / Owner of friendly neighborhood Duquesne bar.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 3 Sep 2011.