Military notifiers must tell the family when a loved one dies
Associated Press – ST. PAUL, Minnesota – Army Lieutenant Colonel Ken Leners brings the news every family fears most.
Leners is a “casualty notification officer” with the Army’s 88th Regional Readiness Command based at Fort Snelling. When a soldier dies, whether in combat, an accident, or suicide, Leners is among the people assigned to tell the victim’s relatives.
The job of a notifier is considered among the most difficult in the military, and Leners still has vivid memories of his first time. In 19 years in the Army, he has done five.
“It gets harder and harder and harder as it goes on,” Leners said.
When notifiers visited Judy Langhorst, she knew with one look out the window why they were there.
“As soon as we saw what kind of vehicle was pulling up the driveway, we knew,” she recalled of the day last April when two Marines and a Navy chaplain came to her home in Moose Lake to tell her that her son, Pfc. Moises Langhorst, 19, had been killed in Iraq.
“I thought it was a thankless job and they did the best they could,” she said. “We had a lot of questions. Who wouldn’t?”
Since late 2001, when American soldiers began fighting in Afghanistan, through today in Iraq, the scene has been repeated 13 times in Minnesota and more than 1,600 times across the country.
“Each one is totally different,” said Marine 1st Sgt. Theodus Williams, a notifier during his time with Marine Wing Support Squadron 471, also based at Fort Snelling. “You have some parents who will take it very hard, some parents who are relaxed with it because they don’t want to believe it, and some parents who are angry,” he said.
During the past 100 years, the military often used telegrams to deliver the news that a loved one had died. During the Vietnam War, those telegrams were sometimes delivered by taxi drivers.
Realizing that those notifications were impersonal and seemed uncaring, the Department of Defense laid out procedures that include who should tell the next of kin and how much information about the death should be revealed to the family on the first visit. In an effort to be sensitive, notifiers leave out details about burial and monetary matters in that first visit.
Practices vary among the military branches, though. The Navy suggests having a chaplain deliver the news, while the Army specifically exempts chaplains. The Marines assign an officer who will notify the family, and then return to help with the funeral, filing for benefits and other work. But the Army and Air Force split those duties between different people so the next of kin will never see the notifier again.
And there are scripts, although each branch prohibits notifiers from reading them as they deliver the news.
Army and Marine scripts waste few words.
“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your (relationship) (died/was killed in action) in (country/state) on (date),” reads the Army’s suggested script. “The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss.”
Navy officers deliver the news in increments. The notifiers introduce themselves, say they are there because they have some news, say that it is not good news, and that the person’s loved one was seriously injured or wounded and has died as a result.
Sometimes it doesn’t go well.
Cheryl Fey, an Eden Prairie mother whose son, Marine Cpl. Tyler Fey, died in Iraq in April, said she’s still disturbed by what happened in her case.
“I was quite appalled at the way this was handled in that there was no clergy person with them,” she said. “They’re not really prepared. The whole concept is, they need someone there to communicate with family members. They needed a chaplain. I would’ve been content with a Jewish Rabbi. They can bring all the military froufrou into my home, but that’s not really going to help. You need a clergy person because you’re just devastated.”
She said the Marines who came to her home “were very professional and military. They sat there upright and very staunch. In their viewpoint, they were very professional. They were following the book.”
“We’re Roman Catholic and we asked the first sergeant if Tyler had been anointed, and he didn’t know what we were talking about,” she said, referring to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. “That’s unacceptable from our point of view.”