TIME Military

As the Wars End, Changes Come in Training Troops to Notify Families of Military Deaths

Army photo

Battlefield deaths decline, but military still has to bring grim news

The wars are nearly over. So it is time for the U.S. military to reboot for one of its most somber tasks: Telling next-of-kin their loved one has died in the service of his or her country.

Over the past 13 years, casualty-notification officers have had to take that long walk up to a family’s front door, and make that dreaded knock that changes everything, 6,803 times.

But with battlefield deaths down to a trickle, the Marines are seeking a new video to help train its Casualty Assistance Calls Officers (each service has its own title for the job) for a future where more will die in peacetime accidents than combat. “The current scenario is 100% war-related,” the corps says in a notice posted Tuesday. “A more current version is required to meet today’s situations.”

The Marines say they want their new training video to include cases involving:

  • Marine’s death due to a training incident
  • Dual active-duty spouse with complicated marital issues
  • Divorced Parents
  • Dealing with children
  • Updated grief/trauma awareness
  • Self-care for CACOs

That last one is critical. This is a tough mission, where raw human emotions run the gamut.

“I’ve picked family members off the floor,” Army chaplain Captain Gregory Broderick said in an Army News Service story last month. “I’ve sat and held them as they’ve rocked and cried… I did one recently where they kicked us out of the house. They were so mad, not at us but at their son,” he confided. “I’ve been spit on as well.”

“You’ve caught them at their worst day,” added Army Major Mark East, the top chaplain at the service’s Human Resources Command.

With the war in Iraq over for more than two years, and with the shrinking number of U.S. combat troops still in Afghanistan slated to leave by year’s end (a total of 33,000 remain), the number of those killed in battle, thankfully, is way down (17 so far this year). March marked the first month without war casualties in 11 years (unfortunately, April won’t be the second).

When casualties spiked in Iraq in 2006, some families criticized the way the military informed them of their relatives’ deaths. That led Congress to demand additional training for those making the notifications, and detailed Pentagon regulations on how it is to be done.

Army Major Brent Fogleman did casualty notifications around that time, after a stint in Afghanistan. The notification job was “by far, yes” his toughest assignment. “There were some guys that couldn’t do it… if they couldn’t do it we didn’t want them to do it,” he said. “That’s not something you cannot do well.”

Families used to learn of their loved one’s fate in terse “regret to inform you” telegrams. That changed in Vietnam, when the Army began dispatching casualty-notification officers and chaplains to deliver the sad news personally.

The service now gives its casualty-notification teams four hours to get to that front door after the Army’s personnel shop has received word of a death. These days, they’re in a race to that door with Facebook and Twitter. They usually, but not always, win.

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