A Republican congressman from Florida has walked back his claim that the Defense Department "placed a heavy financial burden" on the family of a Marine killed in a suicide bombing during the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Rep. Cory Mills, an Army veteran, told Fox News on Tuesday that after meeting with the families of 13 U.S. service members killed on Aug. 26, 2021, at Hamid Karzai International Airport's Abbey Gate, he learned that the family of Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee was stuck with a $60,000 bill from the Pentagon to transport her remains to Arlington National Cemetery.
But Gee's family said they were not billed by the Pentagon at all. Since the article was published, Mills issued a statement saying the family was confused in its grief, and Fox News edited its headline and story without noting a correction. On Friday, it appeared the article had been removed entirely.
"We did not have to pay any bill and never had a bill presented," Christy Shamblin, Gee's mother-in-law, told Military.com on Friday via social media.
Honoring Our Fallen, a nonprofit that supports families of deceased service members -- to include help during the transfer of dignified remains, paid for Gee's remains to be transported by private flight from California to Arlington National Cemetery.
Gee, 23, deployed to aid in the evacuation and withdrawal of Afghanistan in the late summer of 2021. There, a suicide bomb attack killed a Navy corpsman, a soldier and 11 Marines, including Gee.
About a week before her death, the Department of Defense released a picture of Gee holding a baby in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. She posted the picture on her Instagram with the caption: "I love my job."
A day after the Fox story was published, Task & Purpose reached out to Shamblin, the Pentagon and Honoring Our Fallen. All three denied that the family was stuck with a bill or that they had requested the Pentagon pay for transportation to Arlington.
The Pentagon said it had no record of any charges.
"I reached out to Mills early yesterday to make sure I could clarify and set the details
straight," Shamblin told Military.com "I am truly very sorry, and Congressman Mills has been very supportive and helpful."
On Thursday, the day Shamblin said she reached out to the congressman, Mills released a statement acknowledging the response.
"I understand the family of Sgt. Nicole Gee was, in their time of grief, confused regarding transportation proceedings," his statement read, in part. "I am thankful that Honoring Our Fallen was able to assist the family and that the DoD was able to provide clarification on this matter."
Gee's remains were transported from Afghanistan to the U.S. in August 2021 by the government, and a memorial was held in her home state of California. Gee was then to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery, but the process for transporting her remains across the country was unclear to the family at the time, according to Shamblin.
If a family wants a service member's remains transported to another resting place, like Arlington, they would pay for that transportation up front, according to the DoD. The military would then reimburse the family for those expenses.
Mills addressed the policy in his response, saying that "no fallen servicemember's family should ever have to question whether transportation will be paid for or if they will have to pay and be reimbursed at a later date."
The details of that policy would prove moot, however.
According to Shamblin, Honoring Our Fallen stepped in before the transportation or reimbursement process began. The organization paid for a private flight for Gee's remains.
"No monies were exchanged or expected to be paid by our organization or the family," Laura Herzog, CEO of Honoring Our Fallen, told Task & Purpose on Wednesday, adding that the cost of the private flight was paid by a veteran who donated the unspecified funds in Gee's honor.
The Marine Corps stayed consistent with the policy that all costs associated with interment be borne by the government, a Pentagon spokesperson said this week.
"At this time, we have no record of any incurred charges or any pending requests for reimbursement associated with the transportation of Sgt. Gee's remains to Arlington National Cemetery," the spokesperson said in the released statement. "The Marine Corps takes very seriously the transfer of remains of our Marines -- they never leave a Marine behind, and they care for the families of their fallen Marines."
Shamblin told Military.com that the Marine Corps "has always been, and I anticipate will always be, very supportive," adding that the service reaches out often and is responsive to the family.
"At the time, I just understood we would be responsible for the cost of her transportation to Arlington," she told Military.com. "I now understand there is a reimbursement process for this."
The original Fox News story spread on social media and was used to lambaste the DoD for its apparent callousness and blame the Biden administration for its handling of the tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan -- and its tragic aftereffects. The story's central claim was repeated by other outlets like the Daily Mail.
The Fox News story was headlined, "Family forced to pay to ship body of Marine killed after Pentagon policy change: 'Egregious injustice,'" before it was muted with softer language.
Before the piece was apparently deleted, the first paragraph of the article was changed from saying that Mills was "sounding the alarm" about Gee's family being "forced to pay to move the body of their loved one" to read that the family secured funding from Honoring Our Fallen and that Mills was concerned they had trouble "navigating" the DoD process.
Shamblin told Military.com she reached out to the Fox News reporter and "asked for their help making sure the details were clarified."
Media relations representatives for Fox News did not respond to Military.com's repeated requests for comment asking why the article was changed without an editor's note after publication, and why it is unavailable online now. As part of journalism best practices, stories that are changed or corrected after publication are updated with an editor's note explaining the decision.
"At the time, I was just grateful for Honoring Our Fallen stepping up with a donor willing to help," Shamblin said. "I hope in the future the process of getting your loved one to Arlington after their hometown is without any upfront costs to the family."
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.