A friend in New Mexico wrote to suggest a column about casualty notification. “I think it would be very beneficial to know as spouses, and in case we need to inform a friend during this time of war,” she said.
She is right. Although it’s a subject we might prefer to avoid, military families need to know about death and casualty notifications.
Kristin Henderson, Marine wife and author of “While They’re At War” (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), agrees. Her book is about the lives of military spouses, including her own experiences, during deployments.
“As I spoke with spouses early in the war,” Henderson said, “I was struck by how many mentioned their fear of getting ‘that phone call,’ as if they thought they’d be notified of the death of their servicemember by phone. That was when I realized that if I was going to write about the home front, I had to include a section that focused on casualty notification.”
The Federal Trade Commission last month reported a phone scam targeting families of deployed servicemembers. Callers claiming to represent the Red Cross told families their loved one was injured overseas and could not be treated until certain personal information was provided. Knowing how notifications are actually handled will keep us from falling for stories like that.
Injury notifications to families of servicemembers are sometimes made by telephone. However, they are made by the branch of the military in which the member serves, never by other agencies, according to Department of Defense information.
We live by our “sponsor’s social” and “last four,” so we may be less cautious than we should be about giving out that information. Military families need to know that if they are notified of an injury of an active duty loved one, they will never be asked for Social Security or other identification numbers.
“The casualty notification officer will identify him or herself by name, rank, unit, and home station,” said Col. David Smith, command chaplain for U.S. Army Southern European Task Force.
“The notifying officer will then verify they are speaking to the correct person by asking for the next of kin’s complete name, telephone number, and a 45-day mailing address.”
Even when a servicemember has died, the casualty notification officer “should not discuss specific questions such as insurance, death gratuity, final pay, details of mortuary affairs, personal effects of the soldier, or investigations,” Smith said. Families do receive assistance with all these issues, but that comes later.
Death notifications are always delivered to the next of kin in person, never by telephone, Smith said. The news is delivered by a team of at least two soldiers “trained in notification procedures, and grief and bereavement.”
The team includes an officer of equal or greater rank than the deceased and a chaplain whenever possible. “Families deserve the best attention, information and care, especially during a time of serious injury or loss,” he said.
The procedures used by the Navy, Marines and Air Force are on the same order, with each branch handling its own death notifications — all in person — and usually between 0600 and 2200.
“The fear that they may not come home is what … makes a wartime deployment so much harder than other deployments,” author Henderson said. “And when something is unknown, it’s even more frightening, so the more we can demystify casualty notification, the better we can manage the fear.”