Two photos posted on Instagram by a member of the Wisconsin National Guard have caused an uproar on social media.
In one, 14 soldiers are seen joking around in front of what authorities say was an empty coffin draped with the American flag. The caption with that image reads, in part: "We put the FUN in funeral."
In the other, the soldier who put the pictures on the Web is seen in uniform. The caption with that photo reads: "It's so damn cold out....WHY have a funeral outside !? Somebody's getting a jacked up flag."
Monday afternoon, the Wisconsin National Guard said on its Facebook page that the photos had been brought to its attention and "we are currently looking into the matter."
Today, the Wisconsin Guard's public affairs office released a statement that says, in part:
"While the photos and comments do not portray any misconduct during the performance of actual military funeral honors, Maj. Paul Rickert, the Wisconsin National Guard's director of public affairs, said he understands that their content is upsetting to many. The Wisconsin National Guard expects all Soldiers who carry out this sacred detail to handle it with professionalism and honor, he said.
" 'A military funeral is the final show of respect for our veterans and their families, and we take that solemn duty very seriously,' Rickert said. 'The very name 'military funeral honors' underscores the importance we ascribe both as the military and society at large to such solemn occasions. These photos and comments do not appear to align with those values.'
" 'We expect all of our Soldiers and Airmen to live by a core set of values, in word and deed,' Maj. Gen. Donald P. Dunbar, the Wisconsin adjutant general said. 'I was appalled by the offensive photos and comments that appeared on this Soldier's social media site regarding her duties as a funeral honor guard member.'
"Dunbar ordered an investigation into the matter."
According to the Wisconsin Guard, "the group photo with the training casket was taken at the Professional Education Center, a National Guard training facility in North Little Rock, Ark." The image includes soldiers from other states, none of whom had been identified as of early Tuesday afternoon. The Wisconsin soldier who posted it "has been indefinitely suspended from the funeral honors detail pending an investigation into the matter," according to her commanders.
The Wisconsin Guard says the soldier is Spc. Terry Harrison. Its press release adds that measures have been taken to ensure her safety, "following threats [she] received via social media." Wisconsin's WISN-TV says the soldier told the station "she's been receiving death threats."
Her Instagram account has been wiped from the Web. The images, however, have been copied and can be seen on the Wisconsin Guard's Facebook page in the comments about them. The messages on that page are emotional and at times heartbreaking. For example:
"I would like to point out as the wife of a fallen soldier that these pictures raise so many questions that shouldn't be raised by Gold Star Families.
"I wonder if my husband was treated with the dignity and respect he deserved. Did his honor guard make jokes about being at his service or complain about being there? I know other widows whose flags are folded improperly and it's raised the question of whether it was folded incorrectly out of spite.
"These are painful thoughts to even have surface. We want to know our loved one lost was treated with the utmost dignity and respect. I do believe an apology to all Gold Star Families is due and reassurance that proper disciplinary actions are going to be taken. And what steps will be taken to ensure that something this disrespectful NEVER occurs again.
"I am coming up on my 2 year mark this week and these are the last things I want to question. I just want to survive this week."
One person who has commented on the Guard's Facebook page offers a link and some advice to the soldiers in the photo with the coffin: "They should read this." It's a gripping account of what it was like for passengers on a Delta flight to find out that a fallen soldier's body was being brought home aboard the plane. Here's one particularly relevant passage:
"To see the Honor Guard and family waiting patiently, while LAX baggage handlers and a military loadmaster remove the flag covered casket first from the cargo hold, was humbling to say the least. I'm not sure if it was the fallen soldier's mother or wife who I watched slowly walk up to the coffin while a few other family members, wrapped in blankets, stood near with a dozen or so of the Honor Guards standing in salute.
"As soon as I saw her reach out to put her hand on her baby's casket, I walked away.
"This ordinary flight became extraordinary and is one that I will never forget.
"Thank you to all the military who protect our beautiful country and let us live the lives we are able to lead. Without you we would be nothing. And thank you to the Honor Guard for making sure these fallen soldiers, warriors and heroes are not treated like just any piece of luggage as they used to [be], but rather with the care and respect they so rightly deserve."