Grim Task: Notifying Fallen Soldiers' Families

Next to fighting on the battlefield, it just may be the hardest job in the military.

Only certain soldiers qualify for the challenging assignment and many dread the task.

The three military officials -- a casualty affairs officer, a chaplain and a Spanish-speaking officer -- who came to Andy Jimenez's home in Lawrence, Mass., on Thursday to inform him that his son Alex had died are some of the unheralded members of the military who perform this difficult task.

Notifying the families of dead soldiers is a job fraught with emotion that involves the utmost sensitivity in dealing with grief-stricken spouses, parents and siblings.

When the remains of Jimenez and Byron W. Fouty of Waterford, Mich., who were kidnapped by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists more than a year ago, were recently found in Iraq, the three officials made the difficult visit to the Jimenez home.

"Andy had gone to work when the officers arrived and told his niece," says family friend Jim Wareing, who founded the support group New England Caring for Our Military. "But he forgot his cell phone, so he came back home and found out. It was devastating for him, but the officers were very sensitive. It takes a unique quality to be that person, to be nonemotional as much as possible."

At every military base, the task is rotated between different units for a month at a time. Once a casualty report comes in, the commanders of those units select certain officers who are equal to or at a higher rank than the fallen soldier to receive four hours of training, according to Anthony Beville, a recently retired Army captain who worked as a casualty affairs officer at Fort Riley in Kansas.

The process involves two separate jobs -- casualty notification officers, who inform the family and read from a brief script, and casualty affairs officers, who stay with them as long as needed to help them with burial plans, financial assistance and insurance matters, among other tasks.

"But it's never the same person," says Beville. "Psychologically, when that person gives you the bad news, you never want to see him again. So an hour later, a casualty affairs officer shows up to deal with other tasks."

Working With Families for Months

Beville, 43, who is currently a children's pastor with the Church of Nazarene, believes he was selected due to his maturity and his religious training. "It's very emotional, and it helps to have an understanding of spiritual things."

He has helped families with financial assistance, life insurance, burial and funeral arrangements, given them rides to Veterans Affairs offices and made arrangements with credit card companies and mortgage firms.

Once, Beville went to talk to the principal of the middle school attended by a fallen soldier's son, who was having a rough time. Another time, he called a bank that had given an auto loan to a soldier's spouse to help her sell her car back.

In most cases, the officers spend three to six months helping the family, and they often receive kind words of appreciation. "They were glad that I was there. It gave them peace of mind," says Beville.

Notification officers are given strict instructions not to "extend overly sympathetic gestures that may be taken the wrong way," not to pass on "gory or embarrassing details" and not to "physically touch the NOK [next of kin] unless there is shock or fainting."

The job is not without peril, especially when dealing with distraught spouses.

"There are lots of times where they will just want to hit them or cuss them out and be extremely angry, " says Beville. "That's why there are two people who go together and sometimes a chaplain goes with them. It is definitely one of the hardest jobs."

Sometimes it's hard to find the spouse, he adds, noting that the notification officer on one of his cases had to go to a hotel in Las Vegas to inform the vacationing wife about the loss of her husband.

Learning Through Letters

The process has come a long way since the early days of the American military. During the Civil War, families only found out about their fallen husbands and sons by getting letters from fellow soldiers or reading the listings posted at their local train station, according to Michael Sledge, the author of "Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury and Honor Our Military Fallen."

Only in World War II did the military begin to send officers, who did not receive any training, to deliver the tragic news to family members, says Sledge. He explains that some soldiers nervous about the task soothed their nerves by stopping at a bar on the way to the family's home.

In June 1989, an Army report found that the casualty officers suffered psychological problems "akin to the chronic stress of living next to a nuclear or chemical disaster site" and often had trouble disassociating themselves from the families of the deceased.

And in 1994, the Army issued a regulation specifically informing officers that they shouldn't stop by liquor establishments on their way to notify families, according to Sledge's book.

"The process has improved and continues to improve," says Sledge, who interviewed dozens of grieving families. "The families know that you can't bring them back, but the most you can do is act honestly and fairly."