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Military’s casualty notification system often frustratingly uneven for families

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Hands on FlagBy Geoff Ziezulewicz – Stars and Stripes – August 5, 2010
Families with troops who died in noncombat situations generally reported a harder time getting answers than those whose loved ones were killed in battle.

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors The casualty notification officers somberly relayed their message: It was one of her twin sons, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, who had perished.

They couldn’t provide any more information to Harris, nothing else to help the reeling mother absorb or even comprehend the shock.

“Their job was to convey he died,” Harris said. “That’s it. I actually for a brief period of time thought he’d been murdered. That was even more horrible.”

It wasn’t until the next day that Harris was told that her son had been electrocuted in a shower, but still there were few details. Desperate for answers, Harris started hounding the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, and three weeks later, she found out that an electrical system had shorted out, killing Maseth in the shower at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Baghdad.

“I don’t think I would have been told that unless I had constantly pressured and questioned [the military],” said Harris, who later filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against KBR, the contractor responsible for the wiring. “They told me it was difficult to relay information from Iraq to the U.S. I said, ‘How are you fighting a war?’?”

At a time when American deaths in Afghanistan are steadily increasing as the tempo of the war intensifies, more families will inevitably have their lives forever altered when they answer that knock at the door. But for an institution that prides itself on uniformity, the military’s casualty notification and assistance systems have at times proved frustratingly uneven.

Stars and Stripes reporters interviewed nearly two dozen families about their experiences with the casualty notification process, one of the most sensitive tasks the military must perform. Some reported as good an experience as possible in such circumstances, while others said the military made the worst time of their lives even more unbearable.

Families with troops who died in noncombat situations generally reported a harder time getting answers than those whose loved ones were killed in battle.

“If there was one big thing I could change that would take some of the pain away, it’s how families are treated after a loved one has died,” Harris said.

A missing body

Army Spc. Dana N. Wilson, 26, died July 11, 2004, in Iraq, when his Humvee collided with a contractor’s truck.

Six years later, his mother, Kathy Spears, has nothing good to say about her family’s notification and assistance experience.

“I was walking out the door when he was walking up the driveway,” she recalled. “Your heart starts beating fast.”

The soldier sent to break the news asked her if they could go inside, she said. That’s when she knew.

“You could tell he had never done this before,” Spears said. “He was reading off a 3-by-5 index card.”

He gave her a number to call if she had questions.

“But when we called, they didn’t know anything,” she said.

Days before the memorial, the military couldn’t locate Wilson’s body — something that appalled Spears, who spent 23 years in the Air Force.

“We had this memorial service planned on a Thursday, and because they didn’t know where his body was, we had to switch it to the next day,” she said.

Still searching for more answers about how her son died, Spears said she met with Army officials a year later, but got only what she described as more vagueness.

The cruelest cut, she said, came on the first Memorial Day after Wilson’s death, when a supplement with information provided by the military appeared in various newspapers featuring photos of every soldier who died in Iraq. A photo of Wilson’s wife was mistakenly placed above her son’s name.

“I called up to say they had the wrong picture,” she said. “That sergeant who picked up the phone was so nasty to me. I had to point out that maybe if his son was killed over there, he’d have a little more respect.

“Besides them coming to the church and doing their 21-gun salute,” she said, “I have nothing good to say.”

‘15 months of hell’

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