Telling Families of Dead Soldiers

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Unless one is an heir to a great fortune or majority interest in a successful business enterprise, the first step Americans take onto the economic ladder usually entails working in a job that is low-paying, boring and thankless. My prolonged first step onto the economic ladder, stretching over my high school and college summers, was a result of my obliviousness to the importance of having a "real" summer job which would both look good on my rsum and garner me the right connections for future employment. While my friends were accompanying their parents to their Wall Street trading floors or medical laboratories, I refused to don a suit any earlier than necessary. Instead of sitting, as my friends were, in air-conditioned luxury and earning far more than their economic contribution merited, I spent sweltering days filling potholes on city streets, loading baseball pitching machines at an amusement park and breaking up fights as a bouncer in nightclubs. My precocious friends were right. There were easier ways to earn money which did not involve inhaling automotive fumes all day, getting beaned by errant pitches, or having drunks hit you with beer bottles. Yet the physical exertions and risks of bodily harm that I incurred in my various summer employments never grated as much as what I considered the thanklessness of my temporary vocations. Looking out on the employment landscape today I now realize that my petty complaints pale in comparison to what is quite possibly the most thankless job in America — the military’s Casualty Notification Officers ("CNOs" in military-speak).

Nothing terrifies the family of an active duty soldier more than the appearance of an officer in full dress, chaplain in tow, knocking on their front door. Needless to say, the family of a soldier killed in action bears the brunt of the tragedy. Imagine finding out that your husband will never return to resume his employment as you, the faithful wife, wonder how you will feed your children now that your checking account is overdrawn. Imagine finding out that your wife will never return to help care for your children as you, the faithful husband, struggle to raise 4-year-old twin girls. Imagine finding out that your son, your only surviving relative, will never return so that you can watch him start a family and bless you with grandchildren. As upsetting as it is being on the receiving end of such news, repeatedly delivering that message can be nearly as bad. In a 1991 letter to the Washington Post, retired Marine Gerald F. Merna wrote of his experience informing the next-of-kin during the Gulf War: "I experienced everything from women collapsing in my arms to being slapped by a distant relative who blamed me for the death. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier with experience. Each call is worse than the one before it." Not being "thanked" for doing his job is the least of a CNO’s concerns.

Unfortunately there is nothing we can do to prevent or even delay this tragic news. However, we can improve the delivery. If, like in comedy — "It’s all in the delivery" — then perhaps we can start making headway in mitigating this American tragedy which has occurred over 2,500 times in the last few years. No soldier signs up for duty in the United States military to become a social worker. The military exists to defend the country and the soldiers that comprise it fight (literally) toward that end. No one joins the military to drive around, deliver a brief message and watch what remains of families collapse right before his eyes. Such activities as helping with funeral arrangements or explaining survivor benefits are not part of the curriculum of boot camp. Yet there is a better way, in fact a much better way. The following solution will enhance the "democratic process" which Americans unquestioningly adore. Although it is impossible to guarantee the success of this proposed change, the resulting debate should be reason enough to pursue it.

The proposal has three simple steps. Step One is the easiest — abolish the position of CNO in the military. Step Two is the replacement of the CNO with the 2 Senators and 1 Congressional Representative of the deceased. Step Three is watching the ensuing riot. Imagine watching "my" senators, Hilary Clinton and Charles Schumer, along with some representative from New York, delivering the fateful news to a New York state resident who, you can bet your bottom buck, did not donate to any of their campaigns as keeping their financial heads above water was their primary preoccupation. After regaining composure, the next-of-kin might respond with several questions for the messengers like, "As my elected representatives in the Senate and Congress, why, if you don’t support this war, don’t you do something about it?" or "Since you are always so busy talking out of both sides of your mouth in an effort to win your next election, explain to me how I, my children and my country benefit from my husband’s death?" Or how about, "Ms. Clinton, why is your child not fighting in Iraq if this cause is so important?"

The benefits of such a system are numerous. First of all, there would not be any notification calls to my Senators’ familiar $tomping ground$ (sic) of Scarsdale in Westchester County, Roslyn on Long Island or the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Instead Senators Clinton and Schumer would have to visit places they have never even heard of and care even less about, such as White Plains in Westchester, Shirley on Long Island and the Inwood section of Manhattan. Their big money donors, or shall we say "patrons," do not live in any of these lower-end ZIP codes and therefore the idealized, face-to-face, democratic dialog with one’s Congressmen never transpires there. The residents of these less "politically astute" areas are not paying $1,000 a head to rub elbows with Clinton and Schumer at pretentious Hamptons cocktail parties. $1,000 is more like their monthly budget for food, rent and clothing. Until our Congressmen see the sacrifice made by families now sporting one fewer member, they will never be able to perform the cost/benefit analysis of our occupation of Iraq. Forgive me for assuming that an elected official could (or would) actually perform such an analysis unless it directly impacted his upcoming election.

Slapping any United States Marine in the face is tantamount to signing your own death warrant, though no honorable Marine (sorry for the redundancy) would think of retaliating against a grieving family member since empathy would be his overriding emotion. While it rarely makes sense to "attack the messenger" as often happened to Officer Merna, the urge to slap those responsible for blithely sending your family member into danger would be much greater and harder to argue against. Even if your Congressmen claim to oppose the war/occupation, one’s reaction should run along the lines of demanding why their objections are so heartless. It would not be surprising to see a next-of-kin maintain his composure immediately after notification only to instantaneously lose it after hearing the double-speak response to such an innocent query.

While we often hear calls demanding that the children of politicians, or the politicians themselves, go fight the wars they demand be fought, this will never transpire. However, requiring elected officials, those who send others (or other’s children) to fight in wars, to face the human consequences of their votes by replacing the brave officers acting as CNOs is a reasonable demand. If nothing else, when they return to the safety of their seat in Congress you can rest assured that the debate would heat up a notch, provided they don’t themselves land in the hospital for informing an especially upset next-of-kin.

Mark G. Brennan [send him email] writes from New York City.

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