Airmen attending Air Transportation technical school at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, posed for this photo dated Aug. 23, 2011. (Facebook)
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The commander of the 37th Training Group at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, has launched an investigation into a photo of 15 airmen posing with an open casket, in which another airman is posed with a noose around his neck and chains across his body.
"Da Dumpt, Da Dumpt …. Sucks 2 Be U" is written under the photo, which was emailed to Air Force Times.
In the picture, tech sergeants and staff sergeants stand with junior airmen surrounding the metallic casket, similar to those used to carry war dead home to the U.S.
The purpose of the photo, its inscription and its intended audience are not known. It surfaced one month after the public disclosure that the Air Force's Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., had lost and mishandled the remains of hundreds of fallen troops.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley expressed regret Tuesday night that the photo might cause more turmoil for families of fallen troops.
"We take this matter seriously. [Air Education and Training Command] has initiated a commander directed investigation," Donley said in a statement to Air Force Times. "Such behavior is not consistent with our core values, and it is not representative of the Airmen I know. It saddens me that this may cause additional grief to the families of our fallen warriors."
The photo was taken by airmen with the 345th Training Squadron at Fort Lee, Va., said Gerry Proctor, spokesman for the 37th Training Group, which includes the 345th Training Squadron.
The photo is dated Aug. 23 — more than two months before the Dover story broke — and appears with a logo reading "All American Port Dawgs" in the upper left corner. "Port Dog" is a nickname for aerial porters; it comes from an aerial port unit coin circulated in the early 1990s.
Whatever its intended purpose was, it proved offensive to at least one soldier with the 82nd Airborne Division.
"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.
Bonilla said the photo, together with the Dover revelations, made him worry that he could not trust the Air Force with transporting the remains of his men, especially because the photo included noncommissioned officers.
"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."
Bonilla emailed the photo to Air Force Times after receiving it from a former soldier and Army spouse who asked not to be named because of concerns about the spouse's career.
The image had appeared on Facebook in early October, the former soldier said, because a friend had been tagged in the photo. When the friend was questioned about the image, the former soldier said, the concerns were "laughed off." The former soldier began emailing the photo to other friends, and it was then forwarded to Air Force Times on Monday.
The investigation was launched after Air Force Times sent the photo to Air Education and Training Command seeking comment. A request for comment from Air Force officials at the Pentagon was referred to AETC.
David Smith, spokesman for AETC at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, said that the training group's commander, Col. Gregory Reese, was "obviously displeased" but that he could not comment further on the photo until an investigation could be completed.
The investigation should take one to two weeks, Smith said.
Air Transportation tech school is a 29-day class during which airmen learn about loading and unloading aircraft and inspecting travel documentation for passengers, according to an Air Force website. The 345th Training Squadron is made up of the services and transportation schoolhouses, which includes the Air Transportation Apprentice Course.
Although the details of the photo are under investigation, a statement from 37th Training Group said transfer cases like the ones used to deliver the remains of fallen airmen are present at Air Transportation tech school.
While students do not practice dignified transfers — the process of moving fallen service members from the battlefield back to the states — the metal case is kept on hand.
"The transfer case is part of the equipment at the schoolhouse and is to ensure students recognize what a transfer case is to ensure it is treated with dignity and respect when it is in use, and protected in accordance with procedure when it is empty," the statement said.
In the photo, most of the airmen standing around the transfer case are holding their arms up in the form of an "X," the signal used on the cargo lines for "stop." A similar hand motion is used for "cargo load secured," according to an Air Force instruction. Cargo loaders must often communicate with hand and arm signals because they work in noisy areas.
The former soldier, who asked not to be named because her husband is still on active duty, said she was "immediately appalled" by the photo, and particularly concerned that NCOs were in the photo.
"The military is big as a whole, and when you have leaders at a lower level not doing what they are supposed to be doing, it makes [senior leadership] look bad," she said.