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Originally published December 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 28, 2004 at 2:20 PM

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The year in review: An image taken, a choice made, a life altered

From her home in Everett, Tami Silicio spends many late nights in the Internet world of war veterans and support groups for families of soldiers in Iraq. They talk online about...

Seattle Times staff reporter

From her home in Everett, Tami Silicio spends many late nights in the Internet world of war veterans and support groups for families of soldiers in Iraq. They talk online about the war, about those who serve — and about those who have fallen, the ones who return home in flag-draped coffins.

As a contract worker in Kuwait last spring, Silicio helped send many of those coffins home on cargo aircraft that flew to Germany and then to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. In April, Silicio's life took a dramatic and turbulent turn after she photographed coffins lined up in an airplane fuselage and then e-mailed the image to a friend, Amy Katz, who passed it on to The Seattle Times.

On April 18 — with Silicio's permission — the photo was published in this newspaper and then worldwide. The publication drew new attention to a Pentagon policy that sought to prevent media coverage of the transport of military coffins. It also prompted the contracting company, Maytag Aircraft, to fire Silicio and her husband, David Landry, for violating company and government policies.

Silicio's firing gained as much media attention as the photo. She and Landry returned home to a frenetic round of media appearances. But the spotlight has long since dimmed. Silicio's savings have dwindled, and she still searches for a new job.

Despite her rocky return to the U.S., Silicio says she does not regret her decision to allow publication of the photo. Through the Internet, she says, she has received many messages of support from families of soldiers, including those who have lost loved ones. Among them is Bill Mitchell, who says his deceased son, Army Staff Sgt. Michael Mitchell, likely was in one of the coffins depicted in the photo.

"It depends on the day — but the bottom line is that it helped a lot of people, and I'm glad it was published," Silicio said. "I have seen so many acts of right come out of it and have met so many great people. It's just an awesome gathering of friends that the picture has brought me. And for me, friends are forever, and money comes and goes."

In her employment search around the Puget Sound region, she considered several options, including work as a long-distance truck driver and working at a gourmet-soup plant.

"I learned what I don't want to do: make and package big batches of soup into little packages where only people who can afford to pay 3 or 4 dollars for it," Silicio said. "I haven't the patience for work that doesn't have any significant meaning to it."

Silicio said she would relish the chance to work with an international aid agency but so far has had no success landing a position.

Meanwhile, she is preparing to help her sister run a new business making concrete pots. She also has separated from her husband, who has found work outside the Puget Sound region.

Silicio says her photo was intended to show the care and respect that aircraft crews took in handling the flag-draped coffins. As she returned to the United States, she said she was not trying to make a political statement by releasing the photos.

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Since then, Silicio has become disillusioned with Bush administration policies and by the toll the fighting has taken in Iraq. In recent months, she emerged as a sharp critic of the war, speaking out this fall at a protest rally in Seattle and also meeting with Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, to voice her concerns.

"I would really like to know why we are really there," Silicio said. "I would like that question answered."

Meanwhile, the photo endures. It is one in a series of powerful images of the Iraq war that emerged last spring as the U.S. death toll sharply accelerated — images that included the burned bodies of American contractors in Fallujah and U.S. soldiers grinning beside naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

"The photograph is a version of the truth you cannot deny," said Scott McKiernan, founder of Zuma Press, which marketed Silicio's image.

McKiernan said that the photo was published in newspapers and magazines from Chile to Sweden and in at least 30 U.S. newspapers.

Photo sales earned Silicio nearly $20,000, which was shared with Katz. The photo's publication would have been even more widespread except for the release that same week of other images of flag-draped coffins by the Defense Department, responding to a Freedom of Information request.

Some of those images published in newspapers misidentified flag-draped coffins of Challenger astronauts as those of Iraq soldiers.

"Those were out there for free, and tons of people ran them, and there was a lot of misinformation," McKiernan said.

Silicio also reproduced the photo on posters and postcards, selling some of the reprints and donating profits to the Fallen Heroes Last Wish Foundation, which offers support to the minor children of soldiers killed in combat. A donation from reprint sales also was made to charity by Zuma Press, said McKiernan.

In the months after its publication, the photo rekindled debate about a Pentagon policy — sometimes waived in years past but enforced by the Bush administration — to ban media coverage of transport of military coffins. Some say such coverage is an invasion of the privacy of the families of fallen soldiers and Marines; others say it's a way for the nation to help honor their sacrifices.

In June, the debate reached the U.S. Senate, which voted 55-39 to reject legislation that would have restored access to the Dover homecomings. Since April, the media have published no more images of coffins returning home from Iraq.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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