Grim Task: Notifying Fallen Soldiers' Families

"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."

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