A Shrinking World

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.

7 thoughts on “A Shrinking World”

  1. Brad, there’s no good way to handle this. All I can think of are least bad ways, and shutting off access to the outside is probably the least bad thing to do.

  2. We spouses in the military are strong, stronger than given credit for sometimes. During hubby’s first deployment I lived in fear everyday, wondering if this would be the day I got “the call”. We weren’t on a social network then, and he still isn’t, and as this deployment nears, I can only hope people understand the necessity of shutting off communications, even if it means being enveloped in a cloud of fear and hopelessness, until such time as you get “the call”. It isn’t the best, but it’s the best they can do right now.

    1. Oh, you’ve most definitely got the toughest job in the Army. I’ll grant you that. My own experience was that when I was deployed, I knew minute to minute what risk I was at. My family didn’t. They could never “ramp down” their level of anxiety.

  3. Believe it or not, I was the “Information Management Officer – IMO” for the Kuwait Casualty Activity Center (CAC) at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Our job was to take all the army casualty reports (and data from other branches) and verify the information on the reports and pass onto CMAOC in Virgina for the casualty officer notification process to start. My job was to tabulate all of the casualty figures daily for briefs to the CENTCOM staff and ensure that all data on outgoing reports was accurate as of the time it was forwarded. It was a humbling job to be quite blunt. The knowledge that I knew before a wife, husband or parent knew that there soldier was killed was sobering. We did the best we could to try and make sure the info was accurate and passed on as soon as is possible, but its an uphill battle against CNN and the internet to get the info there first sometimes. I’ve talked to casualty notification officers (the rules were changed to allow E7’s to do the duty a few years ago) who told me of arriving at a soldiers house only to find the driveway full of cars and a house full of people already there.

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