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Chapman Rackaway: Brownback AWOL at military funerals

The city of Hays recently laid to rest Bryan Nichols, a helicopter pilot killed in Afghanistan. Nichols was one of the 30 soldiers who lost their lives in the Aug. 6 attack.

On a scorching Friday, Hays rallied to honor Nichols. Hundreds of people lined the streets, holding American flags aloft.

Less than 400 miles away, one of Nichols' best friends and fellow soldiers, David Carter, was laid to rest in Fort Collins, Colo. Fort Collins rallied around Carter just as Hays did for Nichols, as befits the solemnity that accompanies a soldier who dies in the line of duty.

But there was one representative at Carter's funeral in Colorado who was not present at Nichols' service and notable in his absence: the governor of his state.

John Hickenlooper, Colorado's new governor, attended Carter's memorial and funeral. Most governors have an established practice of attending soldiers' funerals in their states. An event that draws the governor out is an important one, and the governor's attendance sends a message about the gravity of the occasion.

But Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback did not attend Nichols' memorial, nor did he send an official representative on behalf of the state of Kansas. The governor did order flags flown at half-staff to recognize Nichols.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., attended Nichols' service. But Brownback did not. In fact, Brownback has made it a point not to attend military funerals during his time as governor.

The reasons the governor's office have given for his decision not to attend are as bewildering as the decision not to attend in the first place.

Most elected leaders make a point of attending military funerals in their states, as Hickenlooper has done. Brownback has made a conscious decision to not attend soldiers' funerals, however. Instead, the governor's office sends letters of condolences to the families.

Letters are one thing. But when the top elected official of a state attends a military funeral, an unspoken message is sent — one that tells the family that a representative of their entire state brings the condolences of all their neighbors. It says that the entire state is rallying around a family whose child made the ultimate sacrifice for the protection of a state and nation.

By not attending, the governor denies military families that honor.

Brownback's administration sees things differently. Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the communications director for the governor, told the Hays Daily News, "Sometimes when a political figure attends something like that, it takes the focus away from the (deceased). So out of respect for them and their families, he chooses to remain in the background."

The governor's reasoning seems sound, except for the fact that a military funeral is not about the governor in the first place. The governor is not there to take attention away, and a governor's attendance does not distract from the terrible duty of a soldier's burial.

A governor attends a military funeral to honor the fallen and the family. Letters are no substitute for the governor altering his schedule and making the effort to attend.

In choosing to "remain in the background," Brownback has invited questions as to why he would deny families the opportunity to receive the wishes of their states' most significant elected representative.

Honoring military families at funerals is important. I have spoken to soldiers' parents who have found the governor's decision puzzling or insulting.

The governor should re-evaluate this policy and honor the fallen.