Some parents would simply ask why their child died. One father really attempted to tear into me, asking, "Did he die in combat? Was it an accident? Was he shot by a [slur against Muslims I'd never heard before]?" The only way to find out for sure is to call the Army themselves. The Casualty Assistance Officers (the cubicle-based version of what I do, complete with paperwork) can give more details. They've told me of parents who contacted them, only to get blindsided by the truth -- if a soldier died falling down a flight of stairs, there are really only so many ways we can spin that into "war hero."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images
There are 1.3 million active military members. The reality is any group that size is going to have a few people fall off a ladder.
This is why we are vague when we're delivering the news on the doorstep. Knowing that someone died in the service seems honorable, but knowing that they died in an accident, or sometimes in an embarrassing way, can destroy that. Families have a right to know, but for the CNO to tell them those circumstances right then and there can often make that initial shock even more devastating.
I did break the rules once, in a situation where a soldier had been killed in combat and I'd fought in the same area. I knew firsthand what the conditions were, and was able to relay some (decidedly very vague) information to the father about where his son had fought. He was thankful for that. Upon returning to the car, I caught some flak from the chaplain for my decision. "You weren't supposed to do that," he reminded me. "Well, I did," I shot back. That's one rule I've broken in the military that I don't regret.
There's Almost No Training For This
To be fair, there are a couple days of sensitivity training classes and a manual on the science (I guess you could call it that) of casualty notification. However, there is a huge difference between reading techniques about dealing with someone breaking down and crying in front of you and actually handling that situation. How many comedians have a hacky bit about not being able to handle a woman's tears? They have no goddamned idea.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Can't take a girlfriend to a sad movie? Try handing a grieving widow a folded flag.
For example, the first time I was sent out, I said "passed away" instead of "killed," and that is a big no-no. The father I told looked confused until the officer with me clarified. We can't say much about someone's death, but "passed away" and "killed" mean entirely different things.
It could've been much worse. I already mentioned that I had to stop a fellow CNO from reading from his script card, but that's a remarkably common occurrence which leaves families even more upset. I know of another officer who had to look up the name of the deceased soldier on his phone mid-speech. Yet another officer accidentally delivered the "killed in action" speech to the wrong family, leading them to believe their child was dead for several days.
John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Better hope mom hugs those arms to exhaustion, because she's slapping the hell out of somebody the second she's done.
These might sound like bad Peter Griffin flashbacks, but they're serious cases that can give families the idea that the military doesn't care about them. That's never the truth -- we do care. It's just that this doesn't really get any easier for us either, and many CNOs are learning on the job. I've found that often the best strategy is to pretend that these are my parents. How would I want them to find out about my death?
In a word, the answer is "with honor." After the tremendous sacrifice some have made for their country, I figured that was the least I could do.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy at Cracked. If you have a story you'd like to share, hit us up at email@example.com
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