Via the daily must-read, War News Updates.
By now, you probably know something of how the Army handles notification of families when a soldier is killed. A notification team consisting of a Casualty Assistance Officer and a Chaplain call upon the soldier’s next of kin in person to break the awful news. These teams strive to be as supportive as possible. They try to convey as much information as possible to the bereaved, and to provide ever possible assistance. For many years, the Army has striven to complete this awful mission in the most compassionate way possible. I’ve known several Casualty Assistance Officers who said it was the most trying, and yet most fulfilling duty they have ever been called upon to perform.
Technology, however, is rapidly causing this procedure, born of a desire to be compassionate to families, to become obsolete.
Social media, and cheap communications technology are a boon for deployed soldiers. Whereas in my day, a letter to or from home would take from two to four weeks to make a one way trip, and a phone call was an almost unheard of luxury, today’s soldiers can often talk with their family via cellphone or Facebook several times a day. Accordingly, when a unit has a fatality in theater, they impose a blackout on internet and phones. But that itself sends a message. When the families at home are suddenly cut off, they know something bad has happened. The only question becomes, “Which family is going to get the knock on the door?”
The Washington Post had a moving article on this topic the other day.
A massive roadside bombing had killed five soldiers from her husband’s 120-man infantry company. The soldier was calling Franks, who was at the center of a wives’ support network, in violation of a military-imposed communications blackout on the unit.
Using an Afghan cellphone, he told Franks that her husband was safe, but that the company commander was probably dead.
Franks’s cellphone beeped. Kitty Hinds, the company commander’s wife, was calling.
“I gotta go,” Franks told the soldier.
She was sure that Hinds was going to tell her that her husband had been killed. Hinds, however, was oblivious to the events 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. It was a perfect afternoon and she was driving her three boys home from baseball camp.
Franks struggled to mask the dread in her voice. Her pulse raced as she said goodbye. “It was horrid,” she recalled. “Absolutely horrid.”
To ensure that a service member’s family does not receive the news of a death by e-mail, phone or an errant Facebook posting, the military temporarily shuts down Internet access to deployed units that suffer a fatality. In today’s era of ever-present connections, such blackouts are rarely enough to cut off the flow of information.
It is a long article, but worth the time to read it.
I’m not sure how to address this problem. Certainly, the families of the fallen deserve to be notified in a dignified, compassionate manner. But holding the entire units families in suspense seems like torture.