When War Knocks on the Front Door

Since that time, the military has taken great strides to deliver the news of a service member's death or injury in the gentlest and most humane way possible by sending a military officer and a chaplain to the doorstep of the service member's designated "next of kin (NOK)," the person chosen by the service member to be notified in case of death or injury.

All notifications, however, do not go as swiftly or as honestly as planned.

"I always knew. I grew up in the Army and as a kid we used to visit Arlington National Cemetery, so I knew that part of being a soldier was realizing that there is a very real chance that when you leave on a mission, you may not come back alive," said Dittamo, who was deployed in both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, when asked at what moment the gravity of his job struck him.

Upon initial notification of the casualties, the family notification teams have approximately 24 hours to locate and notify the service member's NOK. This, however, is not always an easy task. As simple as it should be to check a 3" by 5" index card in a filing cabinet drawer, there are often wrong or outdated numbers listed, making the notification of a fellow soldier's death all the more tedious and disheartening.

Notifying the family as quickly as possibly is the military's number one priority in these cases, not only for the family's benefit, but also because, with more advanced technology and communication, it has become increasingly difficult to keep the specifics of a battle out of the media.

In many cases, the news media often knows more details before the service members' loved ones and they may hear the death toll before they have been officially notified.

As the address of each NOK is located, a notification team consisting of a chaplain and at least one active duty officer, usually from the deceased soldier's unit, is sent to sit down with the family. Per the Army, the notification of the NOK must take place between the hours of six am and ten pm, so that family members need not fear of waking to bad news in the middle of the night. The notification must also take place in person. Under no circumstances is the family contacted by telephone and told that the team is on their way.

Generally, the initial visit of the casualty notification officer and chaplain in their dress uniforms lasts only a few minutes -- just long enough to deliver the news that a woman's husband or a man's daughter has been killed. And usually, words are mere formalities.

"At about nine Cindy Sheehan took her two dogs out for a walk around the neighborhood. She led the dogs up the walkway and into the house. That's when she saw them. Three uniformed officers, standing in her living room. She fell to the floor screaming," writes Raddatz in her book regarding the moment Cindy Sheehan, mother of Spc. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in the Sadr City battle, knew that her son's deployment had ended, but not in the way she had so fervently hoped it would.

Sheehan and every other military family who has had to face those imposing figures at the front door, the bearers of bad news, know that their presence alone says all that needs to be articulated.

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