When War Knocks on the Front Door

Military struggles with informing families of soldiers killed in war.

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.

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.

"From being a hospital chaplain, I know that everybody grieves differently. There is no correct way of grieving. Some people are very reserved and private with their grief and some are on the floor bawling. And all of that is very normal," said Maj. Brian Bohlman, a chaplain at the McEntire Joint National Guard Base, located just outside of Columbia, S.C.

During his years of service in the Air National Guard, Bohlman has found himself deployed to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he has leaned over the bedside of wounded and dying soldiers, holding their hands and praying for them, as well as been part of a casualty notification team.

"The chaplain is often the most experienced officer who is part of the notification team. He or she has been in hospitals, has been around grieving and loss and has seen death," said Bohlman of his duty on the notification team.

When asked how he deals with the burden of bracing himself to deliver such traumatic news to unsuspecting families, the chaplain gives a three part answer.

"I look at it from a spiritual perspective. I am there to nurture the living, care for casualties and honor the dead," said Bohlman.

Once the casualty notification team has made its visit, a casualty assistance officer will follow up with the family the next day.

The family's assistance officer will almost always be a different person than the notification officer so that the family does not flashback to the moment when they learned of their loved one's death every time they see the assistance officer, according to Dittamo.

Over the next five months following the service member's death that it takes to sort out paperwork and process insurance forms, the assistance officer will be the consistent point of contact for the deceased service member's family. Not only is the officer there to see the body of the loved one home, but he or she will also be there to sit down with the family to make funeral arrangements and help the family cope with their loss in any way possible.

"As a casualty assistance officer, some relationships with the families last a long time and some don't," said Dittamo.

In his 22-year Army career, however, Dittamo has only been assigned to one family as a casualty notification officer.

This is typical, he said. Because an officer's first duty as a casualty assistance officer is the family, it supersedes all other responsibilities and may last for an indefinite amount of time.

Also, the casualty assistance officer is generally not below the rank of major simply because an officer of that rank will have more life experience, maturity and will have seen more than a 2nd lieutenant will have.

A knock on the door with officers and a chaplain waiting outside does not always mean death, however. The protocols and procedures for notifying the families of service members who have been wounded in action apply the same to the families of the service members who have been killed in action.

That is why when Allison Cason, whose husband's story is told in Raddatz's book, saw the uniform clad figures on the other side of her parent's frosted glass door, she initially told herself that her husband was simply badly injured, but not dead. Unfortunately for Cason, that was not the case, but for many families it is.

This includes Walter and Cindy Sheets of Lower Alloway's Creek, N.J., whose son, Cpl. Brian Sheets, was injured on Jan. 15, 2007, during his first tour of duty in Ramadia, Iraq, which is located in the Al Anbar Province.

Sheets sustained third degree burns running from his right ankle to his right buttocks and a great deal of shrapnel embedded in his foot when an improvised explosive device, more commonly known as an IED, exploded near his convoy as they were traveling to an outpost.

His parents, however, were never notified by the Marine Corps of their son's injury, either by phone, in person or by letter.

The Sheets eventually found out what had happened when Brian called home. Initially telling his parents that he hurt his foot playing volleyball on the base, he later admitted that he was injured in the line of duty.

While Brian was eligible to return to the states to recover from his injury, he insisted on remaining with his unit, despite the fact that he was out of commission for a month and a half.

"He made us proud of him. He could have used his injury as an excuse to come home, but he didn't. The Lord spared my son's life and it messes me up every time I talk about it," said Brian's father as he ran the back of his hand across his cheek.

Brian, who was awarded the Purple Heart as a result of his injury, and who is scheduled to leave for Iraq for his second tour of duty in January 2008, insists that when his commitment to the Marines is finished in the summer of 2009, he will gladly hang up his boots and move on with his longtime dream of becoming a corporate lawyer.

While Walter and Cindy, who are listed as Brian's NOK, found it odd that the Marine Corps never officially contacted them in any way regarding their son's injuries, Brian Driver, a public affairs specialist for the Marine Corps, insists that the lack of notification of the Sheets family was not an oversight.

In a release provided to ABC News on July 16, Driver states that Sheets was categorized as Wounded in Action (WIA) Not Seriously Injured (NSI), meaning that the soldier is treated and then returned to duty with his unit -- although it would take Sheets six weeks to recover, ideally at a stateside location.

"Marine Corps policy requires telephonic notification to next of kin be conducted by the parent command for wounded Marines categorized as seriously injured or very seriously injured," writes Driver.

Regardless of if they feel deep down that the Marine Corps for which their son is risking his life should have had the courtesy to notify them, the Sheets insist that they hold no grudges.

Whether or not the same can be said for all of the families of those killed or wounded in action is up for speculation.

In the meantime, however, men and women like Bohlman will strive to do their best to care for the families of fallen and injured soldiers, seamen and airmen.

"It's a calling. You just can't retire from it. I think it will be something that I'm doing for a long, long time," said Bohlman.