Slain soldier’s legacy: Changes in easing families’ losses

Stars and Strips

Three days before Army 1st Lt. Ken Ballard was killed by friendly fire in Iraq, he told his mom how “thrilled” he was about saving his hostile fire pay to buy a customized BMW.

It was going to be blue, he told Karen Meredith.

Ballard, who was attached to the 2nd Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division out of Friedberg, Germany, didn’t live to drive his dream car. He was killed May 30, 2004.

But now Ballard has a different legacy, Meredith told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday: a revision of Army Regulation 600-8-1, the 164-page document that spells out the policies and required tasks that make up the Army’s response to casualty operations.

From the moment Meredith learned of Ken’s death, which she was wrongly told was caused by enemy fire, the grieving mother endured a heartbreaking series of mix-ups, oversights, and omissions related to the Army’s handling of her son’s death.

“It was 15 months of hell,” Meredith said in a telephone interview from her Mountain View, Calif., home.

Ballard is not the only casualty mishandled by the Army, critics say.

Much better known is the case of Pat Tillman, who gave up a multimillion dollar NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army Rangers.

Tillman was killed in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan that the Army initially said resulted from enemy fire. His family has accused the Army of a cover-up; the incident is under review by the Army’s inspector general.

Meanwhile, “there are so many other families out there” who were shortchanged by the casualty process, Meredith said in a telephone interview from her Mountain View, Calif., home.

“I so worry about the young mother, or the immigrant family who can’t speak English well, who just gave up” when problems became insurmountable, she said.

The daughter of an Army lieutenant colonel, Meredith “was raised in the Army,” and would not give up.

To their credit, Meredith said, top Army leaders responded to her complaints.

“I think the senior leadership said, ‘This one’s bad, we better pick it apart,’” Meredith said. “I think they understood the magnitude of the impact on families, and they knew they had to do something.”

In September 2005, Army Secretary Francis Harvey met with Meredith to hear her story and to apologize.

He ordered a full investigation of her case, and, in October, a review and revision of the casualty operations manual.

One of the new regulation’s big changes is its attempt to rectify the lack of familiarity with the Army’s own regulations that seemed to be at the root of many of the mistakes surrounding Ballard’s death.

“If I could pick one thing” to improve the process, it would be training,” Meredith said.

The draft rules state that commanding officers will ensure that casualty assistance officers “are trained and certified to perform this sensitive mission prior to conducting an actual … assignment.”

Many of the other changes to policy are meant to improve the way next of kin are notified of deaths or serious injury, and then helped through the process of making funeral arrangements and maneuvering through the maze of paperwork necessary for the funeral and to obtain benefits.

For example, a new rule requires that all soldiers who first visit the next of kin must be on active duty.

Until now, the Army allowed any officer, warrant officer or senior noncommissioned officer in the rank of sergeant first class (E-7) or higher to notify next of kin, including Reserve and National Guard soldiers.

It is hoped the new rule will prevent a repeat of Meredith’s experience. Her “casualty assistance officer” was a young reserve military intelligence sergeant whose unit was about to be deactivated.

Instead of helping the bereaved mother navigate a bewildering forest of paperwork, “he abandoned me after 15 days,” Meredith said.

The new regulation also makes it mandatory for a military chaplain, or at minimum another soldier, to accompany the soldier notifying the family of a death or injury. Until now, the Army had no such rule, though notifications were often done by more than one soldier.

None of the other services are currently revising their casualty procedures, spokesmen said in telephone interviews Tuesday.

On Feb. 22, Meredith had yet to see the draft policy, but she had learned enough from the Army officials who visited her home to believe that “they really did listen to me,” Meredith said.

“To me, this [document] is Ken’s legacy,” she said. “Ken would say, ‘Good job, Mom’.”

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