Casualty Notification From The Inside

Listening to the media coverage of the Iraq withdrawal, one of the most heartbreaking stories was the interview with the widow of the last servicemember killed. This had an special impact on me because twice in my military career, I had to tell families that they’d lost a loved one.

When a death or injury occurs in the military, the family must be notified as soon as possible. Since there are servicemembers all across the country, a military installation may not be close by. So whoever is closest draws the assignment.

For three years, I was stationed in the Cincinnati area to administer contracts at a local jet engine factory. Our small detachment consisted of about seven officers, plus many more civilians. We and the ROTC detachment at the University of Cincinnati were the only Air Force presence in that area. So if there was a death, it fell to us to make the notification. We were not trained for this, it was simply “other duties as assigned.”

The instructions were very precise. The Air Force’s notification office (I forget the official title) called us. An announcement was dictated over the phone. Then it was get dressed in the Class A uniform, go the the office to type the announcement in all caps, no mistakes, then set out to try to find the address. And the immediate next-of-kin was to be told, no aunts or cousins. The notification office was then called to close the loop.

Fortunately, we were not at war then, so these were always infrequent accidents. Still, hearing your phone ring early Sunday morning was never a good sign.

My first notification was for a young airman killed in an auto accident. I was to notify his father. I found the address, a modest single family dwelling, without any problem. The father lived alone. I knocked on the door, introduced myself, said I had bad news, and he invited me in. We both sat on the sofa in a small living room. My instructions were to tell him what had happened, then give him the typed announcement. But I couldn’t get the words out. I simply handed him the paper. He composed himself, head bowed, right hand on his forehead, for about 30 seconds. The he read the announcement, and without saying a word, he reached for the phone, and started calling relatives. He seemed in control, so I offered my condolences and took my leave.

Shortly thereafter, there was another notification. This time the call went to another officer, strictly by chance, and let’s just say things did not go smoothly. The loss was of a son keenly felt by a minority family and they took exception to being notified by a white officer with a distinct southern accent.

So we reevaluated. We wrote a formal procedure, detailing each step, which secretaries would be available for typing, and requiring two officers to make the visit if at all possible.

I don’t remember when the next call came in. It could’ve been a year later, but it really put our system to the test. A family had been visiting relatives (in Kansas, I believe), and had been in an auto accident on the way home. All of them had died. We had to notified one set of parents.

Our end went smoothly. The announcement was typed and two of us set out. When we arrived, we noticed a flurry of activity. The parents had already been notified by the Kansas Highway Patrol, much to the chagrin of the casualty notification office (they always wanted to be first), and (I must confess) to my relief. The family was preparing for a quick trip to Kansas, so we left the formal announcement with them and got out of their way. The only part I remember is they were moving mechanically with blank faces, as if in a trance.

So every story about casualty notification has a special meaning for me. I consider it the hardest job I was ever given. But it had to be done.

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