5 Things You See Notifying The Families Of Dead Soldiers
In many military movies, the arrival of a green-clad soldier at a family home with a folded flag in hand often signifies both the fall of a hero and motivation for the rest of the characters. You don't stop to think about the guy whose job it is to deliver the worst news possible to family after family. If you're trying to find a candidate for Worst Fucking Job in the World, that definitely has to be in the top three.
Those guys are known as Casualty Notification Officers, and we interviewed one who served during the Iraq War, when he unfortunately got plenty of on-the-job experience. He says ...
You Can't Predict -- Or Judge -- How People Will React
Most people can at least gather their senses enough to take the bad news sitting down. Mothers and wives will usually cry, while fathers, brothers, and husbands try to be models of strength for the rest of the family. Sometimes, they'll even thank us for coming to deliver the message the way we do -- in person, in uniform.
There are some things you just don't entrust to email.
Sometimes people lose their minds. Reactions can range from literal heart attacks to (I wish I was making this up) lighting themselves on fire. In my own experience, the most heartbreaking incident happened when a soldier's wife wasn't home. Her young son, who couldn't have been older than ten, answered the door. Realizing why we were there, he bolted the door and ran to his room. We had to wait outside until the wife got back, and it tore us apart that we couldn't do anything for the boy as we delivered the news to his mother outside.
Another time, we arrived during the setup for a party. The family was planning on this soldier arriving home later that week, and were decorating the living room as we showed up to the door. Some friends opened up and asked us if we were there with the soldier, thinking he'd come home early. We had to inform the family of the man's death in front of his friends, too.
Delivering this kind of news is already tragically uncomfortable without ill-timed streamers and party hats getting involved.
But then there are the bafflingly callous reactions. If you think it's hard watching someone have a grief-stricken meltdown in front of you, imagine having a soldier's wife respond, "Good. Glad he's gone. Get the fuck out of my house." I've heard other officers tell stories of families who were only interested in a soldier's life insurance. I'll never know the full story, of course, about how their relationship got that way. It's not my job to understand.
You're Trying To Notify Loved Ones Before The Media Does
CNOs like me do our best to come at a reasonable hour (though there really is no good time for finding out a loved one has died), but the fact of the matter is that outside of a small window in the middle of the night, we can arrive at any time. I've had to wake parents up at 05:00 because of a standing rule that we need to inform families within four hours of a death. You name it, I've probably interrupted it.
"Sorry to get here before the sun. You may want to put some coffee on for this."
We maintain this policy not only out of respect for the families, but also because we're kind of fighting the media. During the Iraq War, news crews would often gather near a family's home in hopes of capturing footage of "raw emotion," or whatever it is they wanted. If there's not a circle of hell specifically for "journalists" like that, then that's not a hell I want to believe in.
In the interest of full disclosure: Yes, we've been beaten by these news crews in the past. They'll obtain tips, often from social media, and can hit the pavement faster than us, likely because we're trying to look respectable, while they're probably living out of their beat-up 1996 converted camera van. The military might drag its feet on a lot of things, but when it comes to respect and casualty notification, we act fast. We have to.
So thanks for that little societal change, Twitter.
Of course, a phone call would be faster, but there's a reason that we're actually required to give the notices in person. As jarring as it can be for us to arrive unannounced, it's really the best thing, given the circumstances. It shows respect, and from a psychological standpoint, it helps people cope with the news. We only do it by phone in extreme circumstances. The only phone call notice I can remember was when a colleague was entirely unable to reach a family due to a snowstorm. He could hear glass shattering over the phone as the man on the other side began to break down, but after a few minutes he was in tears, begging my colleague to stay on the phone.
When we aren't on the scene, there is nobody present for the families to direct their emotions toward, and they're more likely to behave destructively, which is no good for anyone.
Yes, It Takes A Toll
When the next of kin sees us pull up in our most formal military attire (the Class A uniform), they immediately know what's about to happen. Though we break the news as gently and respectfully as possible, it really does take a toll on us to watch people crumble into their most vulnerable states over and over. We help them avoid more psychological trauma at the expense of our own.
We get flak from some guys who say that this is a cushy job, since we get to stay stateside, but even battle-hardened veterans admit that this is the hardest job in the military. Often, we're chosen for the position of CNO by a superior due to a demonstrated sensitivity to the subject. I had lost my father at the age of seven and also earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, so it seems I was an ideal candidate. Though I didn't necessarily want the job, I did as I was asked.
Though after a full regimen of heartbroken families, we imagine "mine tester" starts looking better and better.
This is not a daily task -- even during wartime, you won't have that many casualties in one area, thankfully -- so weeks or months can pass between notifications. On smaller assignments, a CNO may only have one to two notifications to perform every year (though I wound up with a much larger number than that, due to the Iraq War). As a result, we never truly get used to it -- each time is a shock, all over again. I'm not ashamed to say that I've fought back tears many times as I've told parents and/or wives that their child/husband was not coming back. After I did a few, I quickly became the go-to CNO for the area, getting calls at all hours of the day.
Remember those 5 a.m. calls? Now add prep and travel time.
As the leader, this meant bringing new notification guys along, which went about as well as you could expect. Several first-timers I brought along simply couldn't hack it. One bragged on his way over about how he could do this, only to wind up having a panic attack in the car after we told the family. He wound up quitting. Others would shakily read from prompt cards they'd brought along, which looks even worse and more disrespectful than it sounds. I'd have to butt in and take over the delivery, so that the family didn't think that our words of condolences and respect were nothing but a form letter generated by some bureaucrat.
You Can't Give The Families Any Details
There are four speeches a CNO can give to a family: Death, Death by Friendly Fire, Missing, and Probable Death. In the case of suicide, all we can say is that they died of an "apparent self-inflicted" wound (we never use the word "suicide"). The common thread is that these types of speeches give very little information to the family. I would often have to be reminded that, while a family may be seeking some kind of validation or justification for the death, knowing how that death occurred will rarely, if ever, appease them.
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."
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Things You Learn Detonating Roadside Bombs For A Living and 5 Things They Don't Tell You When You Leave The Army.
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