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Breaking the bad news

The process of how the military communicates tragedy to the families of its members has changed somewhat from conflict to conflict, but at its heart, the procedure has stood since the Vietnam War.
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It is “one of the most difficult duties that you will be called upon to perform in your military career,” the Defense Department tells members of the military. It is emotionally draining work that no one wants, and if it is handled badly, the grim task of telling relatives that a loved one has died in service can destroy a family, rattle morale and shatter belief in the military.

The way the military communicates tragedy to the families of its members has changed somewhat from conflict to conflict, but at its heart, the procedure has stood since the Vietnam War, when initial notice by telegram was replaced by personal contact from a uniformed officer.

A specially designated member of the installation involved will arrive at the front door of the soldier’s family between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. in Class A dress uniform, sometimes accompanied by a chaplain. The visitor will speak softly and formally, identifying himself or herself by name, rank and assignment. Before the family is told the reason for the visit, the identity of the person who receives the news will be confirmed.

The visitor will say that he or she has “an important message to deliver from the secretary of the Army” — or the Navy or the Air Force — and will ask to come inside. Only then will the family be told why, although, with dread building, they probably already know.

“The secretary has asked me to express his deep regret,” the visitor will begin, confirming the resident’s worst fears.

The visitor will speak in a natural and sympathetic tone of voice, but he or she will largely be reciting from a script. That is for the family’s protection, but it is also for the protection of the officer who has drawn the unhappy duty of delivering the news.

“In some cases, the [notifying officer] knew the dead soldier and is also grieving,” said Lt. Col. Paul T. Bartone, an Army research psychologist who has extensively researched the military’s organizational responses to grief. But notifying officers must be able to put their own grief aside to be of most help to the family.

“This is very difficult,” said Bartone, director of the Leader Development Research Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. “Some [notifying officers] report trouble sleeping for several days after making the notification.”

Rules and regulations
The Defense Department goes to great lengths to formalize the process of giving families bad news and helping them cope with the aftermath. Instruction 1300.18 — “Military Personnel Casualty Matters, Policies, and Procedures” — runs 59 pages, including enclosures and attachments. There is, in fact, a special Military Services Policy Board that does nothing but think about how to deal with the next of kin, or NOK in military parlance.

Instruction 1300.18 is a thoroughly military document, bristling with jargon that advises CNOs (casualty notification officers) how to track down PNOKs (the primary next of kin), who must be told whether their loved ones have been KIA (killed in action) or WIA (wounded in action) or are MIA (missing in action) or are mysteriously DUSTWUN (duty status and whereabouts unknown).

Afterward, a casualty assistance officer (CAO) takes over to help the family with arrangements and benefits and to coordinate appropriate support from counselors.

Despite the Pentagon-speak — or because of it — it takes a special type of soldier, sailor, airman or Marine to be an effective casualty assistance officer.

The Army, for example, warns notifying officers — who really are officers or senior-ranking noncommissioned officers — that “you are about to embark on what will be one of the most difficult duties that you will be called upon to perform in your military career.”

When things go wrong
The Army guide also advises notifying officers to get the names and telephone numbers of the local hospital, ambulance service and fire rescue squad in case “an unusual emergency situation should arise.”

That is because notifying officers do not know what they will encounter when they arrive at a family’s door. Most relatives react with numbness and shock, but some “can get very emotional, sometimes angry, and the CNO/CAO may become the target,” Bartone said in an interview conducted by e-mail.

The Pentagon makes available a five-minute, 38-second videotape that outlines how to handle those last cases. Titled “Notifying the Hostile Next of Kin,” the video dramatizes the obstacles that confront a black Army sergeant when he is dispatched to tell two white men — the older of the two is called “Pa” — that one of their relatives has died in a helicopter accident in Honduras.

The men, who speak in exaggerated Southern accents, react angrily and menacingly. One of the men addresses the sergeant as “boy.” The sergeant is warned: “There’s going to be an accident here if you don’t get off of our property.”

‘Remember, it's not you’
“Remember, it’s not you,” the narrator reminds viewers. “... You will probably feel isolated and frustrated,” but “you may even learn something through the experience.”

What that lesson might be is not made clear, but what is clear is that the officer should always act in “an appropriate, dignified and understanding manner,” in the words of the Army guidebook.

Accordingly, notifying officers are given one of three scripts for the encounter, depending on whether the service member has been killed in action or by friendly fire or is simply missing. There is a fourth script for the family of a service member who may have been killed but for whom identification has not been confirmed.

Notifying officers are advised not to “extend overly sympathetic gestures that may be taken wrong.”

“Stay with the NOK as long as needed,” the Army guide says, “but depart the residence professionally, as soon as possible.”

Making friends for the military
The Defense Department says it takes its guidance from an observation made by Gen. George Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II:

“There’s no more effective way of creating bitter enemies of the Army than by failing to do everything we can possibly do in a time of bereavement, nor is there a more effective way of making friends for the Army than by showing we are personally interested in every casualty which occurs.”

Indeed, the Army reprints that statement, which Marshall made in 1944, in the chapter on “Casualty Operations Management” in Field Manual 12-6, “Personnel Doctrine.”

But the Pentagon also takes seriously the impact of casualties on surviving colleagues and intermediaries, such as notifying officers.

At least since the Vietnam era, when it began requiring that notice of casualties be made in person, the military has instituted a wide range of rules and programs to protect officers from the emotional aftereffects of being the bearers of bad tidings.

A different officer, for example, is assigned to assist the family, which may have “negative images and associations to the casualty notifier,” according to a 1994 research report on how the military responds to death as an organization. That is the officer who talks the family through funeral arrangements and the like.

“One of the most important things commanders can do is free up the casualty officer from his [or] her normal duties for a time, so the officer can give full attention to the casualty process,” said Bartone, who directed an influential review of the Army’s response after a plane carrying 248 soldiers home from peacekeeping duty in the Sinai crashed in Newfoundland in 1985, Bartone said. Psychiatrists, psychologists and social work officers are all made available.

“Another tip is to make full use of chaplains,” he said. “We still have chaplains in the military, of all faiths, and they are an incredibly valuable resource.”

‘They just know’
The Defense Department declined to make a notification officer available to to discuss the experience, about which little has been written outside the military because, Bartone said, “most attention was focused on families and surviving unit members.”

But in an article last June in the Army publication Soldiers, 1st Lt. Craig George of the Casualty Area Command of the Military District of Washington at Fort Myer, Va., described how casualty notification can be difficult and draining duty.

“You never know how someone will react,” George said. “Some people will start screaming when they see you coming. They just know something is seriously wrong when a uniformed soldier comes to their door.”

A retired Marine, Gerald F. Merna, wrote in a letter to The Washington Post at the time of the Gulf War, in 1991, “I experienced everything from women collapsing in my arms to being slapped by a distant relative who blamed me for the death.”

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier with experience,” he wrote. “Each call is worse than the one before it.”

In the end, there is only one way to make the compassionate connection that can ease a family’s grief, and it cannot be found in scripts and regulations.

“Read the pamphlet ... and then forget it, and rely on good old common sense and human instinct,” Merna wrote. “Speak from the heart.”