In the Information Age, Racing to Deliver News of a Death
VERMONT -- There's one job that Col. Jonathan Farnham of the Vermont Army National Guard doesn't want to get good at: notifying the families of fallen soldiers that they've lost a loved one. Unfortunately, in the last few weeks, his office has had a lot of experience performing that difficult task.
On Saturday, funeral services were held for Specialist Scott McLaughlin, 29, of Hardwick, who was shot and killed on September 22 near Ramadi, Iraq. A day earlier, 1st Lt. Mark Dooley of Rutland was laid to rest. Dooley, 27, was killed September 19 by a roadside bomb in Ramadi. On August 23, Sgt. 1st Class Chris S. Chapin, 39, of Proctor, was shot and killed by a sniper near Ramadi. In all, since the war in Iraq began in March 2003, seven members of the Vermont Army National Guard have died, as well as 13 other soldiers with Vermont connections. That's the highest per-capita casualty rate of any state in the nation.
Delivering death notices has been critical in every armed conflict. The Iraq War adds a relatively new logistical challenge: the importance of notifying family members before they learn of their loss through unofficial channels. In an age of embedded reporters, international cellphones, wireless laptops in the field and soldiers who write their own blogs, the time pressures surrounding this somber task have never been greater.
"It's a job that we take very seriously," says Farnham, deputy chief of staff for personnel with the Vermont Army National Guard. "We don't want to do it, but if we do have to do it, it's done to the best of our ability out of respect for our soldiers and the pain their family has to endure. It's painful enough without someone finding out the incorrect story."
None of the Vermont families whose loved ones have died in Vermont have heard the news first through an unofficial source. But Farnham recognizes the potential that a friend or family member could learn of a soldier's death before the military has had time to verify the soldier's identity, confirm the details of how he or she was killed, and determine who needs to be notified. As Farnham emphasizes, the Army doesn't just want the job done quickly -- it wants it done right.
The process actually begins before the soldiers leave the country, according to Farnham. All of them go through a painstaking procedure to ensure that their legal affairs are in order, including writing a will, designating which family members are to be contacted and who will receive their final pay, death benefits and so forth. The soldiers even leave behind a detailed street map to their families' homes.
"There's a positive side to that, too," Farnham notes. "Say the guy's wife runs out of fuel oil in January or needs firewood or family assistance -- we can send someone out there. It's not just for this scenario."
When the Department of the Army gets word that a Vermont guardsman has been killed -- and the process is essentially the same for all branches of the military -- it sends a warning order to the Vermont adjutant general's office. From that moment on the clock is ticking, says Farnham. The adjutant general's office immediately begins executing a series of checklists in order to verify, among other things, that the names and locations of family members hasn't changed since their deployment -- if soldiers get married or divorced, say, or their spouses or parents move.
Next-of-kin relationships "can be pretty complex in today's environment," Farnham points out. "The traditional family that you think of is not always the case."
Once all the information is verified, a family-notification team is assembled and dispatched to the family's home. (The military prefers not to do notifications in the workplace.) The team consists of an officer, a chaplain, a senior noncommissioned officer and occasionally medical personnel in the event there's an incident. The military prefers to send someone who knew the soldier or was familiar with where he or she lived. The Army also provides the notification team with explicit instructions about what to do at the home, including a script of what to say. Very little is left to the officers' discretion.
"It's kind of like a pilot's checklist. You go through it step by step, even if you've done it previously," says Farnham, who has performed this duty himself. "Because, once your emotion kicks in, the severity and sadness of the thing, you really need to be following a formalized procedure."
Once the family is notified, the team stays at their home until other family members arrive. Within a few hours, a casualty-assistance officer shows up to help with funeral arrangements and other legal matters. That officer may assist the family for several hours, or even several months. The notification team then returns to its base for a debriefing with a staff psychologist.
Barring unforeseen complications, such as difficulty in making an identification, the time between a soldier's death and family notification is about eight hours -- and four hours from the time the Vermont National Guard receives the news. "The information comes a long way, 7000 miles, in a short period of time," Farnham notes. Compared to earlier wars, that's very quick. But in the digital age, it's an eternity.