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The Bad News Bearers:
The Most Difficult Assignment in Law Enforcement

(Released May 2009)

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  by Emil Moldovan  

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Military Notifications

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The United States military has a great deal of experience in making death notifications, largely because of the numbers of fatalities incurred during the Viet Nam and Gulf wars. During WWII and the Korean military action, death notifications were made by telegram. Today, the military trains Casualty Notification Officers (CNO) to respond to family residences and make a personal notification of the death of a service member. The Army manual produced by the United State Army Signal Center, Fort Gordon, Georgia is an excellent example of the training received by military personnel.

The manual states in part:

a. The Next of Kin will be notified promptly in an appropriate dignified and understanding manner by a uniformed service representative. He/she will wear the Class "A" uniform and present a soldierly appearance when making notification.
b. The Army's policy is to make personal notification to the primary next of kin and secondary next of kin of the deceased soldier within four hours after learning of the death. Notification should take place from 0600 to 2200 (6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.) local time unless otherwise directed. The time limits established for notification may have to be adjusted due to distance involved or other conditions, such as adverse weather. All attempts will be made to notify the primary next of kin first, if efforts to contact the primary next of kin are unsuccessful, then the policy recommends that the CNO contact the Casualty Area Command (CAC), immediately for guidance. (United States Army Signal Center, Fort Gordon, Ga, 2002)

3 soldiers
U.S. Marine Corps unit responsible for death notification, Orlando, FL
Even with years of experience and formal training, specialty units making a death notification have difficulties and receive numerous complaints from surviving family members. Lizette Alvarez, writing in the New York Times stated, "Scores of families whose loved ones have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone head-to-head with a casualty system that, in their experience, has failed to compassionately and competently guide them through the harrowing process that begins after a soldier's death." Some of the complaints include casualty assistant officers who are poorly trained and cannot walk them through the labyrinth of their anguish. In one instance, the refusal of the CNO to allow a father to view his son's remains led to a major confrontation between the family, the military and the Officer making the notification. The family later learned they had a perfect right to view their son's remains prior to burial and the entire incident could have been prevented. Families also raised concerns that their questions as to how their loved ones died were not addressed and answered for months following the death notification. (Alvarez, 2006)

The military takes extraordinary efforts to train their Casualty Notification Officers in the proper procedures for notifying families of deceased servicemen and women. USA Today reported on a new training film showing the difficulties that await the soldiers who had to make that fateful knock on the door to inform families of a military death. The film intersperses professional actors with documentary-like interviews of soldiers who have performed casualty notification. It depicts events showing potential reactions from survivors in an effort to expose the CNO's to situations that may arise. In one scene an actress portraying the wife of a fictional soldier sits on a living room couch clutching a pillow and shaking her head violently at the news of his death. The film then cuts to an interview where Army Chaplain Ed Grimenstein warns of what soldiers might expect during notification. Even with these efforts to get the job done right, numerous documented incidents demonstrate how easily the messenger can make errors of judgment in dealing with families during a death notification. (Zoroya, 2006)

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