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Terry Newell, Robert Gest III
When Marine Cpl. Jamie R. Lowe was killed in Afghanistan in January 2010, he
was brought home with a military escort and an American flag draped over his
casket. He received a military funeral, with honor guard, and was eligible for
a plot in a national cemetery. A Gold Star was given to his family. All of
these were honors due for the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country. He
deserved our respect, our homage and our profound gratitude. Our nation planned
for it–and made sure he got it.
When Victoria DeLong, who served in
the U.S. Cultural Affairs Office in Port-au-Prince, died in Haiti during its
devastating earthquake the same month, it was up to her agency to decide
whether and how to honor her. No government policy or program ensured an escort
or provided a flag for her as a civilian worker. No government appropriation
paid for a burial plot. No one was designated in advance to attend the funeral,
thank the bereaved on the part of a grateful nation or present a Gold Star.
Our civil servants who die in
service to our country also deserve our respect, homage and profound gratitude.
Institutionally, they do not receive it. No
government-wide policy exists for honoring federal civil servants who die in
the line of duty. As a result, each agency and often each component of larger
agencies decide what if anything to do, if they even think about it.
Since 1992, 2,965 federal civil servants have lost their lives in the line
of duty, as John Berry, Director, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, noted in
a speech during Public Service Recognition Week this year. Some have died in
war zones, others in what we thought were peaceful places–Oklahoma City,
Nairobi, New York, Austin. Some have died serving overseas, such as in the
Peace Corps, but many have died in law enforcement, fighting forest fires,
handling the mail and in drug interdiction here at home. Yet, as a nation,
whether and how we honor those civil servants is left to chance.
It might be tempting to explain away this contrast by observing that
soldiers sign up for a task known to be dangerous. But a life lost in service
to the nation is not less worthy a life because of this distinction. Nor should
we be less grateful. As Berry said in a 2009 speech, “Just as we owe our men
and women who die in uniform more than we can ever repay, we owe these
non-combatant workers a debt of honor as well, and I challenge anyone to say
their lives are any less dear.”
This past May, Rep. Richard Hanna (NY) introduced the Civilian Service
Recognition Act of 2011 (H.R. 2061) to require federal agencies to provide a
U.S. burial flag for any federal civil servant who dies in the line of duty.
The bill, which now has 21 co-sponsors, is advancing in the House. Its success
is by no means certain, and no companion bill exists in the Senate.
All those who serve our nation take the same oath of office. Whether they
die in a combat zone, in a foreign embassy in a nation at peace or in an IRS
building targeted by a citizen who hates the government, they have died in
service and honor to that oath. Simple justice demands we return the honor they
We write about this because we have had the
privilege to work with dedicated federal civil servants, and because we believe
it’s the right thing to do, politics aside. But it’s also the right thing to
do, politics considered. This step should be embraced by conservatives,
liberals, and moderates alike, as it honors the ultimate sacrifice for country.
Indeed, support for the House bill is bipartisan, and it cleared the Committee
on Oversight and Government Reform in June with the votes of members of both
parties and the strong endorsement of Chairman Darrell Issa. The bill is also
good for the current health of the civil service, which deserves more
recognition than it often receives, and for enhancing recruitment by lending a
civil service career additional prestige.
When you go to your local post office to request a flag for the coffin of a
current or former member of the military, you get one. If you go to your local
post office for a flag for a civilian worker who has died in the line of duty,
you get nothing. It’s time for that to change.
Terry Newell was the dean of
faculty at the Federal Executive Institute from 1994 to 2004. He is now retired
from the federal government and is a private consultant. Email: [email protected]
Robert Gest III was a senior faculty member at the Federal Executive Institute from 1993 to 1999 and its deputy director from 1999 to 2002. He is now retired from the federal government and is a
private consultant. Email: [email protected]
A previous version of this piece by
Newell appeared in The Washington Post.