Casualty notification process emphasizes dignity, respect

By David VergunMarch 12, 2014

Casualty notifications
Don Mason, a Korean War veteran, prays in the Pentagon chapel, March 7, 2014, for those he served with. Mason said his mother received a telegram from the Defense Department in 1952, while he and his brother were serving in Korea -- he in the Navy as... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 11, 2014) -- From the moment Human Resources Command's Casualty Notification Center gets the call that a Soldier has died, the casualty notification officer, or CNO, and an accompanying chaplain have just four hours to notify the next of kin in person.

People's lives are changed forever in that four-hour window, said Maj. Mark A. East, command chaplain, Human Resources Command, Fort Knox, Ky., and chaplain Capt. Gregory J. Broderick, executive officer, Chaplain Recruiting Branch.

Although the war in Iraq is over and the mission in Afghanistan is winding down with a commensurate decline in casualties, the job of notification is no less stressful and demanding, said the two chaplains, who've both made those visits.

And in a sense, the duty is rewarding, because there's no better way to honor the fallen than with the presence of two Soldiers who are showing compassion for one of their own, they said.

The chaplains explained that there have been a number of significant ways notifications have changed over the years.

During and before the Vietnam years, the Department of Defense would often send a telegram, informing the family of the news, Broderick said.

That changed, however, when Julia Moore, married to an Army colonel during the Vietnam era, saw the process first-hand and decided there needed to be a change in the way it's done, he said.

Julia's husband, retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, happens to be co-author of the book "We Were Soldiers Once And Young." The book, co-authored with reporter Joe Galloway, later became a movie.

Julia's efforts, Broderick said, led the Army to change its policy and now, almost every notification is made with a CNO, accompanied by a chaplain, across the service components.

More changes took place, he continued, including an important one about five years ago, when training for the CNOs became much more formalized and comprehensive.

That change took place just after the Iraq surge when casualties were the highest. The chief of chaplains at the time wanted to better prepare the chaplains for the task, rather than just "throw them into the lions' den," Broderick said.

Broderick had made notifications before the training was formalized and he said the training really made a difference in the way notifications are handled.

"We've gotten smarter and more in touch with the human aspect of honoring the fallen," he said.

It takes a mature, resilient Soldier to take on the task of CNO, and units are careful in who they pick, East pointed out.

And the job is no less difficult for the chaplain, Broderick pointed out, putting it on par with performing the Last Rites.

"I've picked family members off the floor," he said, describing the trauma involved. "I've sat and held them as they've rocked and cried. People have been so upset they can't change their baby's diaper.

"I did one recently where they kicked us out of the house. They were so mad, not at us but at their son," he continued. "I've been spit on as well."

Of those negative reactions, East said that later on, after the family members have a chance to reflect and take it all in, they realize how tough a job the CNO had.

Many say something to the effect, "I treated him awful that day, but if I could have him back I'd put my arms around his neck and give him a big hug because now I'm able to see what he did for us," he said, adding, "when they've gotten the news you've caught them at their worst day."

The role of the chaplain, East said, is to not only be there for the family members, but to "help CNOs try to understand grief and loss so they can empathize" before making the visit.

Broderick said that just a week ago he did a notification and although the window of time was short, he said he sat in his garage and "prayed and wept with God because I knew what I had to do." After the notification, "I wept afterward as well."

The four-hour window goes by "really fast," he said. "We're up against Facebook and Twitter," meaning the news can sometimes, but not usually get out before they arrive.

Besides linking up with the CNO and driving to the location, Broderick said he helps the CNO prepare by stopping at a coffee shop to pray with him or her. He said he tells the CNO "we're about to change someone's life very drastically."

After the notification, they stop there again on the way back and pray. "It becomes our sanctuary."

Also during the stop at the coffee shop on the way back, he said they go over the events that took place and their own reactions to those events.

Broderick said it's similar to a "critical incidence stress debriefing," where Soldiers share their experiences and thoughts. He said he's convinced that if this is done right away after any type of traumatic event -- and a notification could be such a type of event -- then the risk of post-traumatic stress decreases and resiliency increases.

By unwinding, Soldiers get the feeling that, "'gee I'm not alone. Others are thinking the same thoughts as me, feeling same feelings as me,'" he said. "You can see their recognition" as they work through the process.

East explained that the chaplain's particular faith has no bearing on their notification responsibilities.

"Chaplains are not there to exercise their faith tradition," he pointed out. "He comes in to do grief and loss counseling and to assist in that critical moment."

Occasionally the family does not have a strong religious background, but usually someone in the family does, he said.

The chaplain may try to connect the family to a local pastor, rabbi or priest, if they don't already have one, he continued. The person they're connected with will usually be the one present at the funeral, although occasionally the family might request the presence of the chaplain who was at the notification.

The only thing that remains constant in doing notifications, Broderick concluded, is that "each visit will be different. Family dynamics drive the situation."

Changes made to the notification process, he added, better prepare the chaplains and CNOs for the unexpected and the fallen and their family members are given the honor and respect they so deserve.

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