Video: Toughest mission

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/23/2004 11:01:25 PM ET 2004-12-24T04:01:25

It's a chilling image. Two people in dress uniform, approaching the home of a family with someone in the war zone.

In the wake of the devastating suicide attack on a U.S. military mess hall in Iraq, it's a sorrowful scene repeated across the country.

After the strike Tuesday in Mosul that left 18 Americans dead, including 13 service members, a small number of military chaplains and other officers were likely awakened in the middle of the night and told to report to their base in one hour in their dress uniforms.

Their job — notifying the families of all those soldiers who were killed in the attack.
        
Two people, a casualty notification officer and a chaplain, go to the homes of soldiers killed in action and tell their loved ones face-to-face.

It's one of the most thankless jobs in the military. Maj. Greg Walker, a chaplain with the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, says it's best.

Delivering the news  
"When I was in Iraq, my brigade lost 32 soldiers, and that was tough," Walker said. "But I'll tell you, it's a lot tougher being here and having to notify a family than it is to be there with a soldier when they pass away."

Sgt. John Friesen remembered the first time he had to notify someone about a lost soldier. Friesen is an Army Casualty Notification officer for the 1st Calvary Division at Fort Hood.

"April 4th, 2004," he said. "She was four months pregnant with two kids."

What did he tell her? 

"Well, I read her the script, 'On behalf of the secretary of the army I wish to express my deep condolences, your husband has been killed.' "

"She broke down after that," Friesen recalled. "I was kind of fortunate one of her friends was staying with her. After that, I asked her if she wanted to say a prayer and we all held hands and said a prayer."

Doing duty
Friesen is part of a one-week rotation of officers and enlisted men who notify families about the loss of a loved one.

He and Major Walker agreed that nobody could do this job full-time. It's just too stressful.

In fact the chaplain said his primary job is to lend moral and spiritually support to a notification officer like Friesen.

"You've got hostile next of kin," said Friesen. "You've got people who shut their doors and won't open them."

"Sometimes they are angry at the Army," explained Walker. "I've seen them take it out on us. Sometimes they are mad at the chaplain, they blame God, and that's not a good experience but it's one I've been through."

It's his duty, Friesen said. "Someone's got to do it."

And for him it will be especially difficult this year. "I'm scheduled for Christmas through the second of January and I hope nothing happens. It's going to be especially difficult over the holidays."

Jim Cummins is the NBC News' Dallas bureau chief and lead correspondent. Please watch his report on MSNBC cable TV — part of the MSNBC "Homefront" series — for more on the casualty notification officers and chaplains in the U.S. military.  

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