The shot seen around the world

When Tami Silicio saw the coffins of US servicemen on a cargo plane, she felt compelled to capture the moment. It infuriated the Pentagon, got her fired, and changed America's attitude to the war, as she tells Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent US

On the tarmac of the international airport in Kuwait, Tami Silicio stood in silence. Close by her, US Air Force personnel were saying prayers as coffins bearing the remains of American soldiers killed in Iraq were loaded into the rear of a cargo aircraft bound first for Germany and then the United States.

As the coffins were placed into the plane, laid out in neat rows on scrubbed wooden pallets, Silicio climbed into the hold. Momentarily, she was overcome. She would tell people afterwards that the interior of the plane with its 20 aluminium coffins, held in place by bright white straps, felt more like a shrine than a cargo hold.

Regaining her composure, she pointed her Nikon Coolpix camera, fired off two rapid frames and then went quickly back to work. "I guess my feelings were so built up - my heart was so full of grief," she recalls. "And it came out in the picture."

She adds: "If my son was over there and killed, I would want to know. I would worry about him being left on the ground somewhere. [What I saw] was very moving. The Air Force and Army took expert care - they took very good care of them, to try and make their journey home very safe, so to speak. They are very respectful."

At the time Silicio, 50, thought little more of her actions. She had taken the pictures to share with her closest friends and family members, in order to show them the care with which the young men losing their lives in Iraq at such a prolific rate were being treated. Silicio knew something of the suffering caused by the premature death of a child: she had lost one of her own sons to cancer when he was just 19 years old. She wanted to let her friends know that the bodies of these young soldiers, dying by the dozen several hundred miles to the north of Kuwait, were being treated properly as they were returned home to their own families.

But, unknown to her, the two photographs she took that evening set in motion a series of events that would place Silicio smack in the middle of President George Bush's so-called war on terror and end up costing her and her husband their jobs. One of the pictures she took would find its way on to the front page of her home-town newspaper, and from there to newspapers around the world - a haunting image that summed up the rising death-toll of American troops in Iraq.

More important, her action would put her at odds with a White House effort to censor such images of home-bound US coffins. There are certain aspects to President Bush's bloody and deadly war with the "terrorists", it seems, that he would rather the American public does not get to see.

Now back in the US, where she is looking for a new job, Silicio is amazed at the controversy her picture has generated. Yet she has no regrets about what she did. Speaking out about what happened to her and the way she has been treated, she tells me: "This has nothing to do with politics. It was not about politics. It was my intention to share this with my friends and family."

Silicio, who lives in a small town outside Seattle in the state of Washington, had worked as a contractor in Kuwait on and off for three years. She enjoyed the work, and she was used to working close to the world's trouble-spots. She had previously worked in Albania and Kosovo, dispatching trucks and cargo to support the Nato peace-keeping operation.

She found herself working in Kuwait as the preparations for the invasion of Iraq and the ousting of Saddam Hussein gathered pace. She was employed by Maytag Aircraft, an air-cargo company which had several military contracts. The 12-hour shifts she worked didn't bother her. And in the midst of the preparations for conflict, Silicio discovered romance in the form of David Landry, a former US Marine who was also employed by Maytag. Landry became Silicio's third husband during a trip to Turkey in April 2003.

There was little time for a honeymoon. As the US forces quickly pushed towards Baghdad, part of Silicio's duties while working the cargo "flight line" involved sending home the bodies of the men and women killed. One e-mail she sent in October 2003 to her mother, Leona, was typical of her mixed emotions about the work she was doing: a churned-up, messy combination of sadness, empathy and respect. It read: "Tonite, I stood in the open cargo door of a C-5 [military cargo plane] looking down at a flag-draped coffin of a young man being lifted slowly up on the loader, with four military personnel on each side standing to attention saluting till it reached the door I was standing in. They were with him as soldiers, and I stood by him as a mother."

As the months passed, the number of bodies being returned to the US fell, but then in late March and April this year - a period during which more than 100 American troops would be killed as a Shia uprising threatened to spread and attacks on convoys became more common and more sophisticated - the death toll started to rise. When Silicio pointed her camera on 7 April, the 22 coffins in the cargo hold filled the entire frame.

That night, before going to bed, Silicio downloaded the images and sent them to an old friend, Amy Katz, a woman she had met working in Kosovo. Katz, 36, who has taught at the University of Alaska, currently leads "vision quests", or wilderness treks for people to help them to find new direction in their lives. She was stunned by the power of her friend's photograph and decided - perhaps a little impetuously - that it ought to be shared with the American people. The following day she telephoned the picture desk of The Seattle Times.

The paper's picture editor, Barry Fitzsimmons, instantly saw the potential of the photograph. For more than a year, the Bush administration had refused the media access to the coffins of dead soldiers, which are usually returned to the Dover air-force base in Delaware. "I just said, 'Wow,'" Fitzsimmons says. "The picture was something we didn't have access to as the media, and it was undeniably newsworthy and exclusive."

The Seattle Times says that before it published the picture on 18 April, it obtained Silicio's permission and ensured that she knew the impact it would probably have and that she could lose her job over it. In an e-mail she told the newspaper: "The picture is about them, not me: about how they served their country, paid the price for our freedom and the respect they receive on their way home."

Unfortunately, the Bush administration didn't see things that way. Three days after The Seattle Times published the picture on its front page, Silicio was fired by Maytag. The company's president, William Silva, told the newspaper that while the decision to fire Silicio had been the company's, the US military had identified "very specific concerns" about her actions. He declined to detail those concerns.

Unfortunate timing may have played a part. April was - from the perspective, at least, of the American forces - the deadliest month since Saddam was ousted, and the total of US troops killed in the Iraq war had soared to more than 700. The same week Silicio's picture appeared, the Memory Hole news website (www. thememoryhole.org) obtained more than 300 pictures of the coffins of dead servicemen under a Freedom of Information Act request. Later, however, the Pentagon said the decision to release the pictures had been made in error and ordered that no more images be provided. But it was too late: newspapers around the world were quick to publish the photographs the Bush administration very clearly did not want people to see. "Quite frankly, we don't want the remains of our service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice to be the subject of any kind of attention that is unwarranted or undignified," John Moline, a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.

Silicio is taken back by the administration's attitude; by its apparent involvement in the dismissal of her and her husband from their jobs, and by its claim that the picture ban was requested by the families of those who had died. "I was told that the picture went to the top and so there was no choice [for Maytag]," she says. "I can't say for sure, but I know there was a lot of pressure [from the Pentagon]."

Having both lost their $70,000-a-year jobs, Silicio and her husband are now looking for new careers. Silicio wants to work in some sort of humanitarian field, perhaps for a non-governmental organisation.

As they look to pick up their lives, she can rely on the support of her family in Washington State, including her 21-year-old son, Will Taylor. "The photograph was supposed to show the respect," he says, speaking from the town of Everett, where he is a part-time student. "It was supposed to be a comfort."

Her sister, Toni Silicio, is adamant that Tami acted with the best of intentions. "I was not surprised," she says of her sister's actions. "In the last month the fighting has been increasing, [with] a large number of men killed. I think she was taken aback by the prayers and saluting and wanted the families to know that the coffins were being treated well."

For all the goodwill of her family, perhaps the most important voices of support have come from the families of some of the soldiers killed. "I have had letters from the families whose sons and daughters have died. They have been very supportive," she says. "We have had so much positive feedback, heart to heart - and that picture was taken from my heart."

The Seattle Times, while regretting that Silicio lost her job as a result of its scoop, is satisfied that it has behaved honourably. It, too, says there has been a huge amount of support from the family members of American servicemen.

One letter in particular, printed last week, caught the eye. It was from Jean Gray of Richmond, Virginia. "Thank you!" she wrote. "My son, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Gray, was killed on 5 March 2004. Although these recently released photos have been unbearably sad, I am comforted knowing Michael received such a level of reverence and respect. My greatest concern was that he lay alone and abandoned to be treated as little more than military cargo. Though the pain of his loss is no less, these photos have helped bring me a bit of peace."

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