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Military’s casualty notification system often frustratingly uneven for families

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The casualty notification and assistance process has evolved with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After several incidents involving families who were failed by the system, the Army standardized training and certification in 2006. Before that, the training varied, with each garrison drafting its own protocols, according to Col. Deborah Skillman, chief of the Army’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Branch.

One of those failures involved the 2004 death of 1st Lt. Kenneth Ballard, a 1st Armored Division tank officer.

From the moment his mother, Karen Meredith, learned of his death, she endured a series of mix-ups, oversights and omissions. She was initially told he was killed by enemy fire. It only later emerged that a gun on his tank accidentally discharged, killing the 26-year-old.

“It was 15 months of hell,” Meredith said of her quest to get answers.

In 2005, then-Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey met with Meredith to apologize. He ordered a new investigation of her son’s case, and a revamping of the Army’s casualty manual followed.

“I think they understood the magnitude of the impact on families, and they knew they had to do something,” Meredith told Stars and Stripes in 2006.

These days, only soldiers of the rank E-7 and above undergo the two-day casualty notification training, and they must pass an exam before they go on the job. They also are required to take annual refresher training.

Garrison commanders determine which soldiers will go through training — and personality plays a part in the decision.

“Some soldiers are just not meant to do this job,” Skillman said. “And some people really know how to reach out to a family member and help them through the grief process.”

The Navy’s training program lasts one day, while the Air Force incorporates its casualty training into a leadership course. The Air Force also employs civilians for the follow-up casualty assistance work.

“There weren’t the standards in training that there are today,” said Lt. Col. Rob McCaslin, of U.S. Army Europe’s casualty assistance center. “The Army can do some things wrong and go back and fix it. Casualty operations isn’t one of them.”

‘No easy way’

Marine Gunnery Sgt. James Sullivan, a member of a casualty notification team, has been the one knocking on the door several times. He knows the drill, but hates the exercise.

“You wish nobody had to do it, but that’s not the way it works,” he said. “The notification — there is no easy way.”

Sometimes, a family’s grief is aggravated by a well-meaning assistance soldier.

“Sometimes CAOs want to help their family so much that they don’t understand what can be done and what can’t be done,” said Lt. Col. Stacy Bathrick, spokeswoman for the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Branch. “They sometimes commit the Army to something that legally cannot be granted.”

During the first few days after notification, the bereaved can feel overwhelmed as an assistance officer guides them through burial options, benefits and other paperwork, according to Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a group that helps families who have lost a servicemember. To date TAPS has assisted more than 30,000 surviving family members, casualty officers and caregivers, according to its website.

“Sometimes families do take it out on people,” said Neiberger-Miller, who lost a brother in Iraq in 2007. “They’re angry. The process expects families to make a lot of decisions quickly.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher S. Adlesperger, 20, was killed in combat in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, just weeks after receiving the Navy Cross, an award second only to the Medal of Honor.

His mother, Annette Griego, told Stars and Stripes in December that her experience was very good and that her assistance officer took care of everything she needed. Still, she took issue with the abruptness of the process.

Marine officials were quick to present her with paperwork to sign for an initial $100,000 in death benefits a day after she was told that her son had been killed.

“I don’t think it was the best time to bring that up,” she said.

Griego also said she wishes the Marines hadn’t washed all her son’s clothing before they returned them to her.

“We wanted to smell something of him,” she said.

Ever good enough?

Not every visit turns out badly.

For Patti and Scott Holmes, the loss of their son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jeffery S. Holmes, in Iraq in 2004 was mercifully eased by Marines who were professional and answered their questions. Those Marines, who never knew their son, drove from Massachusetts to their home in Vermont to break the news. A call from one of their son’s comrades also helped clarify the tragedy: Holmes had been killed by enemy fire while conducting clearing operations in Fallujah.

“I just hope that every other family was treated as well as we were,” Patti Holmes said.

Overall, the branches have made “tremendous strides” in casualty notification since 2001, according to Kathy Moakler, of the National Military Family Association.

Even at its best, the process will never be good enough.

“It comes down to, is there a good way to tell anybody that their loved one died?” Neiberger-Miller asked. “Probably not. Language fails.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Nancy Montgomery and Kevin Dougherty contributed to this report. (Click HERE for original article)

For more information on casualty assistance for families, go to:
Air Force
Army

Marine Corps
Navy 
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors

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To all of you that have served our country in times of peace and times of war, thank you.  Your sacrifices have been many and we honor your service. 

To all of the families, friends and loved ones, may you find the answers that you seek. 

~Foresti

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