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Sunday, April 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How two women, one photo stirred national debate

Seattle Times staff reporters

From the tarmac of the Kuwait International Airport, cargo worker Tami Silicio listened to the Air Force prayers as the coffins were carefully loaded onto a jet bound for Germany.

It was the evening of April 7, barely a week into the deadliest month for the U.S. in Iraq, and on this night more than 20 deceased soldiers were headed home.

Silicio boarded the plane. A half-dozen people labored largely in silence to secure the coffins for takeoff. To the 50-year-old Silicio, it felt more like a shrine than an airplane.

Silicio raised her digital Nikon Coolpix and took two pictures.

The next morning, after her 12-hour shift, she returned to the apartment overlooking the Persian Gulf that she shared with husband David Landry, who also did cargo work for Maytag Aircraft, a military contractor.

Silicio downloaded the images she'd taken — including some from the tarmac — and fixed upon one. The ordered coffins appeared as if lining a long tunnel, and she was startled and shaken by the power of the image.

"I guess my feelings were so built up — my heart was so full of grief. And it came out in the picture," Silicio recalls.

Before bed, she e-mailed the photo back to America, to friend Amy Katz. In the almost five years since they had met in Kosovo, they had become close: They shared stories, poetry and photos by e-mail.

But with this one click of the "send" button, Silicio's snapshot would soon become a haunting symbol of the rising U.S. death toll in Iraq. And it served as a touchstone in a new dialogue about a military policy that seeks to ban the media from photographing the transport of deceased soldiers.

This one click would also upend the lives of Silicio and her husband, who were fired from contract jobs that paid each more than $70,000 annually.

The women behind the photo

The 36-year-old Katz had just returned to the States from teaching a college course on a sailboat in the Caribbean. Staying at an uncle's house in the Chicago area, she logged onto a computer and pulled up the e-mail from Silicio. The message: "Today it was 22."

Then Katz saw the image. Deeply moved, she wanted to pass on the image. She e-mailed it to Silicio's hometown newspaper, The Seattle Times. The photo was published, with Silicio's permission, on last Sunday's front page.

The publication spawned broad debate over the ban, which the military says protects the privacy of the soldiers' families; opponents say the public has a right to see images that show the toll of war.

From the start, Silicio wanted the attention to stay focused on her photo, not her. But as the image and Silicio gained wider attention, additional questions arose: Who is this woman, and why did she share this picture? Some, including Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, praised her. Others challenged her motive as political. President Bush weighed in, backing the ban.

Silicio, in an interview late last week, said she does not have a political position on the war. "Our sons and daughters are over there now — and we need to support them," she said. "On the other hand, I think we should try to find a solution to the conflict other than killing each other."

'Kind of a daredevil'

Silicio eludes stereotypes. She enjoys meditating and studying philosophy and says her heroines include Mother Teresa and Joan of Arc. Her father was a Boeing machinist. Tami was the second youngest of four daughters. She attended St. Therese School in Seattle and high school in Edmonds, where she struggled.

Outside of school, Silicio built tree forts for neighborhood children.

"You never could find her," recalls her mother, Leona Silicio. "She'd always be in a tree or someplace. Always kind of a daredevil. If someone else had done it, she had to do it better."

That grit served her well in a family business that carried out the setup for major regional events such as Seattle's Bumbershoot arts festival. It was grinding work, with long hours of truck driving and hard physical labor.

Silicio's personal life was challenging as well. Her marriage to Landry was her third. She had five sons. One, Richard, died Sept. 29, 1996, at the age of 19. He was handsome and dreamed of a baseball career. He spent his final years fighting a brain tumor. Silicio brought him home from the hospital and nursed him in his final months.

"I tried everything I could to keep him alive, and the doctors did everything they could," Silicio said. "I finally said, 'No more.' "

Three years after the death of her son, Silicio embarked on a new career as a contract worker, a job that offers long hours of overtime that can help pile up big-dollar, tax-free wages to help support her family. She worked for Halliburton, the Texas-based corporation once led by Vice President Dick Cheney that now holds a key U.S. military contract in Iraq.

Silicio first drove mail trucks in Albania, then moved into a new position dispatching trucks and cargo in Kosovo in support of a NATO peacekeeping operation in the fall of 1999.

A friendship develops

There, in the cab of a big dump truck rambling down a mountain road, she met Amy Katz. The two women became friends and roommates.

Katz came from Skokie, Ill., raised in a Jewish family whose home had become a gathering place for Holocaust survivors. That's where Katz says her "inner activist" was born, which helped chart a journey that included a master's degree in speech communication, global travels and a move to Alaska.

There she taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage and leads "vision quests" that guide people through rigorous wilderness experiences to help them find new meaning and direction in their lives.

Katz, with her long blond hair and blue eyes, stood out in the roughhouse male-dominated world of contractors. So did the shorter, older Silicio. Both women liked their work and a lot of the people they met. But they said the atmosphere was rife with sexual tension. "Some men had a good-old-boy attitude ... and there were a lot of lewd comments," Silicio said.

Their friendship helped them survive the strains of contractor life. "We had a very strong spiritual connection," Katz said.

The two also shared a passion for photography. Katz had hired on with Halliburton in a job that included photography, and she saw that Silicio had natural talent for taking pictures.

Both left Halliburton later that fall. Silicio was let go in mid-October for a driving accident that damaged a van. Katz was laid off due to a lack of work, but she suspected she was tagged as a troublemaker for challenging policies that called for separate restrooms for American and foreign staff.

Katz encouraged Silicio to file a sexual-harassment lawsuit against Halliburton. Then Katz filed her own lawsuit, claiming the company had created a discriminatory and hostile work environment.

The complaints briefly surfaced in the media in the 2000 election, as Cheney's leadership of Halliburton came under press scrutiny.

Katz settled her case under favorable terms, according to her attorney, Patricia Buchanan of Seattle. But Katz was troubled by what happened to Silicio: After paying lawyers' fees and submitting to binding arbitration, Silicio lost her case.

The outcome did not sour the friendship. Silicio found work with other contractors in Kuwait. Katz was mostly in Alaska, but they stayed in close touch. And in December 2002, they met up in India, roaming around the northern regions, meeting with monks and shepherds and seeing the Dalai Lama.

Difficult duty in Kuwait

After India, Silicio returned to Kuwait as the U.S. military made final preparations to invade Iraq. Kuwait was a central staging point, and the U.S. Air Force looked to civilian workers to handle the crush of cargo moving through the airport. There, Silicio met another contractor, David Landry, an ex-Marine from Lowell, Mass., with a varied career that included freelance photography. The two married last April during a trip to Turkey.

As U.S. troops moved into Iraq, the nature of the cargo jobs began to include sending out the dead. It was a task that Silicio described in numerous e-mails back home with a mix of grief and reverence.

"Tonite, I stood in the open cargo door of a c-5 looking down at a flag-draped coffin of a young man being lifted slowly up on the loader, four military personnel on each side standing at attention saluting till it reached the door I was standing in," she wrote in an Oct. 21, 2003, e-mail to her mother, Leona Silicio. "They were with him as soldiers, and I stood by him as a mother."

There was a dip in the monthly body counts, then a surge in early April as U.S. troops in Iraq fought uprisings in Fallujah, Baghdad and other places. The casualties filled the coffins framed in the photo that Silicio took in the cargo plane on April 7.

The decision to publish

Silicio and Landry were startled to find that Katz had sent the photo to The Seattle Times. Landry even went to a base official to ask a hypothetical question: Could a contract employee take a photo of the coffins and then release it? No, the officer told him.

Landry was deeply troubled and feared for what would happen to his wife if the photo were released.

In Seattle, Barry Fitzsimmons, one of The Times' photo editors, worked with Silicio and Katz in more than 40 middle-of-the-night e-mails and fractured phone calls to learn more about the photo and obtain permission to publish it. He told Silicio she had taken a potent and important photograph but also warned that publication could cost Silicio her job.

Silicio decided she wanted to see the image in print. And she hoped that a respectful presentation of the photo and story would minimize the risk to a job she very much wanted to keep.

"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 from our military personnel at our air terminal," she wrote in an April 16 e-mail to The Times.

The Times ran her photo under the headline, "The somber task of honoring the fallen," accompanied by a story in which Silicio describes the care demonstrated by military and civilian workers in bringing home the war dead. The Times did not pay Silicio for the photo.

Monday, the day after the story was published in print and on the Web, Silicio and Landry were called in to the office of a Maytag official and told they had violated company and base disclosure rules. Their fate was unclear; they might receive only a reprimand and three-day suspension without pay. The couple were sent home. With no television or phone, their main connection with the outside world was the Internet.

On Tuesday, a Maytag official told them they were both fired: Silicio for taking and releasing the photo and Landry for helping to pull off the effort — even though he'd balked at the release.

The next few days brought a roller coaster of emotions. The two were shocked by their new financial predicament: unemployed with few savings and some debts yet to pay off. But they also began to feel pride, and a new confidence, as a trickle of e-mails and Web searches gave them a sense of the avalanching public reaction.

By Friday, the couple were planning their return to the Puget Sound area. Beyond that, their plans are uncertain. In the short term, the biggest decisions have been which interviews to grant. ABC was an early winner: It moved them to a room with a good phone at a beachside Hilton hotel.

To handle the onslaught of media requests for the photo, Katz retained an agent, Zuma Press. The California-based agency had sold the photo to print and television media around the world and takes 40 percent of the profits.

Silicio says she wants to donate her proceeds to help the families of soldiers and contractors who died in Iraq. But Katz and other friends, concerned about her finances, are urging her to take more time before making a final decision.

For much of last week, Katz was the more-public face of the two friends. From her mother's house in Las Vegas, she handled a blizzard of media inquiries, racing through television and radio appearances in a sleepless 48-hour sprint.

Katz has shared in the pride of the huge response to the photo. Yet she also feels guilty for her involvement in something that cost Silicio her job. Talking about those events brought Katz to tears late last week.

"I'm very much aware of how much of a role I played in this," she said. "The phrase that comes to mind is 'sacrificial lamb,' and it makes me feel very sad, and very guilty. I think she martyred herself, and I martyred her."

But Silicio is not second-guessing her decision.

"I figure there is a reason for everything," she said. "I think that maybe this is the way it was supposed to be. I was supposed to take the picture. I was supposed to send it to Amy. And then, this chain of events went the way they were supposed to be."

Seattle Times reporter Rachel Tuinstra contributed to this report.

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

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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