When War Knocks on the Front Door

Military struggles with informing families of soldiers killed in war.

ByABC News
July 25, 2007, 3:52 PM

July 25, 2007— -- It is the moment that every military family dreads, the moment when a service member's loved ones go from having a son or daughter fighting in the war to having a son or daughter who died in the war.

In her book "The Long Road Home," which recounts the 2004 battle of Sadr City, the beginning of the insurgency in Iraq, ABC News chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz describes the intensity of the moment in stark language: "That was how these things happened. The doorbell rings and your life changes forever."

 And with the number of military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan growing each week -- as of July 23, 2007 nearly 4,000 lives -- it is news that American families experience today on an almost daily basis. In that cycle, the military's notification system is critical.

The family of former football star Cpl. Pat Tillman brought national attention to flaws in the military's notification procedures. Following Tillman's death on April 22, 2004, the family was informed he had been killed in action fighting enemy forces. Pentagon investigators learned quickly that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, but his family wasn't notified of the development for five weeks.

"The number one thing to remember is that notifying a family of a loss is a human process and human beings make mistakes sometimes," said Col. Mike Dittamo, who has served as a casualty assistance officer for the U.S. Army Kansas National Guard.

While the circumstances surrounding the handling of Tillman's death led to proposed changes in the Army's notification process requiring a thorough investigation of all hostile fire deaths, other branches of the military follow slightly different protocol.

The Navy and Marines look to see if each death is the result of enemy or friendly fire, and only investigate deaths that appear suspicious on the surface.

"Frankly, to burden folks with further investigation would be unwarranted," said Brigadier Gen. Michael Downs, USMC (ret), director of the Personnel of Family Readiness Division, when asked why the Marine Corps did not investigate all hostile deaths like the Army and the Air Force.

The family notification process, however, is generally similar between the branches.

When a death occurs during deployment, accountability must first be taken in the field, followed by the notification of the team's commanding officer. The commanding officer then notifies the service member's base.

In the case of the eight men who died in the Sadr City firefight that Raddatz recounts in her book, Dexter Jordan, the rear detachment commander for the First Calvary at Fort Hood, Texas, was the point of initial notification.

Upon learning the identities of the casualties, Jordan quickly set out to identify each soldier's designated next of kin, indicated on a casualty notification card completed by the service member prior to leaving for their tour of duty.

During World War II and Vietnam, a telegram was the sole means of family notification. Only on rare occasions, for example when a family lost multiple members, were chaplains and military officers sent to the home of the family.

Beginning in October 1944, late into World War II, all commanders stationed in the theater of war were ordered to write an appropriate letter of condolence to the family of any service member killed under their command.