A Grim Task: Military-Death Notification

Among the many thousands of men and women who chose to serve in the military, few volunteer for the duty of death notification. As the nation honors those killed in the line of duty, those who work intimately with the families of the fallen share their stories. (Originally broadcast May 29, 2006.)

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The United States has had an all-volunteer military since the end of the Vietnam War. But even amongst those many thousands of men and women who've chosen to serve their country, few volunteer for the duty of death notification. It takes a special kind of bravery to walk up to a parent or a spouse's door, knock, and deliver awful news.

On this Memorial Day, as the nation remembers all the men and women killed in the line of duty in ceremonies and parades, we'll talk with Marine Major Steve Beck, who works intimately with the family and the friends of the fallen. He, and the Marines under his command, were profiled by the Rocky Mountain News in a Pulitzer Prize winning series of stories called Final Salute. Rocky Mountain News photographer Todd Heisler joins us as well.

Please note: This is a rebroadcast, and we're not going to be able to take any new calls today. Later in the program, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich on the words that date us. But first: The Final Salute. Our first guest served for 28 years as a U.S. Army Chaplin, Colonel Eric Wester joins us now from his office at the U.S. Army Chaplin School at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. And thanks very much for taking the time to be with us today.

CHAPLAIN ERIC WESTER: You're welcome, Neal. Pleased to join you.

CONAN: How do you prepare yourself to walk up to the home of a fallen soldier and ring the doorbell?

WESTER: Well, I think one of the most important things that I do, as a chaplain, is to try to focus my thoughts about my role, which is to be there as a spiritual support to the family, and also, to the officer who delivers the news. Chaplains usually don't personally deliver the news of a death or a serious wound of a loved one, but the Army designates a person of equal or greater rank to make that walk. And chaplains are usually walking alongside.

CONAN: Because you're part of a team at that point.

WESTER: That's right. We usually go up as a pair. And, often, it's a matter of a couple of hours of preparation for the two of us. And, as you mentioned about the grim duty, it really does take somebody a few minutes to steel themselves to go up and see to those parents or that spouse.

CONAN: I'm sure there have been moments, waiting on the sidewalk before doing it, where it takes a few moments to gather yourself.

WESTER: It sure does, Neal. And one of the desires of the military is to deliver the news as quickly as possible. So it's not uncommon to get a call on an off-hour, to come in to meet up with another officer or senior NCO, and drive over and actually be sitting in a car just around the corner somewhere.

And in those moments, as I'm sitting there with that notification officer, there's time for quiet reflection, taking seriously our own calling as people in uniform, some prayer together, often, and then a commitment to do what is so important to us, which is to honor the soldier by doing the very best we can to deliver a compassionate, though very painful, news.

CONAN: Time is critical because in this day and age when soldiers have access to email and satellite telephones and the like, you certainly want to make sure that the official process is the way people are notified, that they don't find out.

WESTER: That's very important, Neal, especially because of the importance of getting accurate information. You know, technology is both our friend and a kind of a complicating part of the story. As you say, cell phones and satellite phones, and things like that today, people in the war zone have almost immediate contact with family members.

The services do try to put some policies in place. And members who survive an attack, for example, or one of their buddies is killed or wounded, they know that it's important that the family get the information officially to make sure it as accurate as possible.

CONAN: I wonder, as soon as somebody answers that doorbell or that knock, and they see you and an officer or a noncom there, do you they know what you're there for?

WESTER: Oh, Neal, that symbolism of having a government vehicle out in front of the house and walking up to the door - when they swing open that door, it's almost as if the words have almost no way to really soak into their experience because of what they see, you know, two soldiers dressed in their Class A uniform. Yes, it's unmistakable. In every case I've made that walk, before the notification officer gets a word out, the grief has already started.

CONAN: How long do you stay with them?

WESTER: Well, at the notification, we're normally there for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. In many case - well, I mean, every case is different. People grieve in their own way. In some cases, families are even reluctant to open their door. It's almost as if they can say no, no, no.

It will at least delay what they are anticipating. And in those cases, it's often - it takes a little bit longer not only to get in the house to personally deliver the news but also to help support and encourage them. I mean, the grief is sometimes just overwhelming.

And in addition to the two of us, the notification officer and myself as the chaplain, being with them in their living room. As we get a chance to talk a bit, I try to identify if they have clergy from their family, a minister, priest or rabbi that we might call or other family close by that could spend time with them because the shock of that initial notification really requires some other compassionate, loving presence with them.

CONAN: Joining us now is Bill(ph), Bill calling from Roanoke in Virginia.

BILL: Howdy.

CONAN: Hi.

BILL: I just wanted to - well, of course, with the Memorial Day today, I remember very much friends who didn't make it. But the last assignment I had on active duty was in Fort Devens, Massachusetts and, as an additional duty, was notification officer, which is the person that actually goes and notifies the parents or next of kin that their son, in Vietnam case there were no daughters or at least none that I did, died.

CONAN: Fort Devens, I believe closed some time ago. When was this?

BILL: This was Vietnam. This was '71 through '73.

CONAN: Another unpopular war.

BILL: Oh, absolutely. And, quite frankly, in New England, being an officer in uniform was not, at the best of times, a popular person. And delivering bad news was even worse.

CONAN: This...

BILL: But they had - I thought they were very wise in having two separate officers. One was the notification officer. This was the person who delivered the news. And then, within 24 hours, they had what they called the survivor assistance officer, a different person who is not labeled with that face. That face didn't have the bad news associated with it, and that person was there to basically handle everything.

I mean, they told us that no matter what they wanted us to do, if it was legal, it was our job to do it for them. We arranged funerals; we did everything.

CONAN: I wonder, Bill, do you remember each and every one of those? Do they blur together at all?

BILL: No, I remember every single one. I remember every single phone call at 4:30 in the morning. I remember driving to every single house. I remember once going to a place in a - what would have been an idyllic, Robert Frost snowfall into southern New Hampshire, and knowing that on this beautiful day I was going to be destroying some family's lives.

CONAN: In Vietnam, was there also the emphasis on getting there quickly?

BILL: Oh, yes, yes. It was a very - I think probably because of a number of casualties - it was a very well-oiled system. Like I said, I'd get the phone call, probably within 24 to 48 hours after the individual had died. And by 4:30 in the morning, I had the information, and it was my duty to get it to the people as soon as possible and with the greatest amount of honor and dignity.

CONAN: What measures did you have to take to make sure you were first?

BILL: What do you mean, the...

CONAN: The first to deliver the information.

BILL: Oh, that - well, one of the things that they told us was to make sure they knew exactly where to go without any fumbling around. In other words, we looked on maps. We tried to find the place. And we were directed to not seek directions from any place other than a police station if we absolutely had to because as soon as you appeared on the front door and rang that doorbell - as soon as they opened the door, they knew.

And you could see it on their face and you could just see their world collapse. And it was heart-wrenching. But I felt that it was a duty that probably had the greatest importance of just about anything I ever had to do. And I did it with the greatest amount of feeling that I could without - I guess, you know, it sounds strange - but without becoming emotionally involved. Does that sound sort of strange? I guess...

CONAN: I don't know. Chaplain Wester, what do you think, without getting emotionally involved?

WESTER: Well, exactly what Bill's saying is something that I would underscore, which is for many NCOs or officers who are appointed to do this notification, many of them say it's the most difficult thing they've had to do in their service career and the most important.

And I think, in many ways, having a formula, a ritual, something that gives the notification officer a formula for presenting the news, it helps. It really helps the notification officer stay focused. But I know from many times of walking back out from the front door to the car and sitting there with the officer and just collecting our thoughts and remembering what's happened, it affects all of us very deeply.

CONAN: Bill...

WESTER: But, I think, in the moment, a guy like Bill wants to do what he can to represent the military service and our nation, to pay tribute even in that moment to a family.

CONAN: Bill, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

BILL: Well, thank you and Happy Memorial Day.

CONAN: You, too. We're going to take a short break now, more after the - afterwards. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today, we're talking about remembrance and grief and the difficult job of delivering news that nobody wants to hear: that a loved one in the armed forces has been killed. Our guest is Colonel Eric Wester, a chaplain with the U.S. Army.

The Rocky Mountain News published a special report called Final Salute in honor of Veteran's Day. The series profiled one Marine, Major Steve Beck, over the course of the year, as he performed this tough duty: death notification and casualty assistance. Final Salute won Pulitzer Prizes both for feature writing and feature photography.

Todd Heisler was the photographer of this series and he joins us now from the studios of member station KFCR in Centennial, Colorado, and nice to have you on the program today.

TODD HEISLER: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: What was the impetus of this story?

HEISLER: This story started - I'm going to speak for Jim Sheeler, the writer, who wasn't able to be here today. But it started - his first Iraq assignment was to cover the home front. And he had covered Thomas Slocomb's funeral. He was killed in March of '03.

And he had - he had found out, during the course of the funeral process, that when the family went to the funeral home to go see his remains, he had found out that Marines had stayed at the family's house to guard the house to make sure that nobody tried to break in or bother them.

And when he talked to Terry Cooper(ph), Thomas Slocomb's mother, later on, he said, you know, I didn't realize all the things that the Marines did for you. I didn't realize that they stayed at your house. And she said there are a lot of things you don't know.

And that's kind of what started this. And Jim had talked about getting behind the stare to try to get, you know, show people that there are real people behind this duty and that there are, you know, there are real lives that are being affected.

CONAN: The - one of the principal figures you profiled was Major Steve Beck. Major Beck joins us now from Fort Collins, Colorado, where he's participating in Memorial Day services. And, Major, welcome, nice to have you take the time to be with us today.

MAJOR STEVE BECK: Hello.

CONAN: Did you volunteer for this duty or is this part of the job of whoever's with that particular unit?

BECK: Which duty would that be?

CONAN: The notification duty.

BECK: Oh, you don't volunteer for that. You're basically assigned that. If someone - if there's a Marine that falls in - from this state - from the state of Colorado, then it basically falls - is a responsibility of the local Marine unit that's there.

CONAN: And how is it that these two journalists, Todd Heisler and Jim Sheeler, were allowed to watch this very painful and private process?

BECK: Well, the - it came down to telling a story about the Marines themselves. Matter of fact, I met Jim Sheeler at Fort Logan National Cemetery during a service for Kyle Burns and Sam Holder, two Marines that died in the same engagement, basically trying to save their fellow Marines. And he wanted to talk to me about basically a story about those Marines. And he wrote a story called "The Tale of Two Tombstones" about those two Marines as well.

And so that kind of began this relationship with him and my desires to ensure that these Marines were not forgotten. And so we tried to tell their stories from their families' perspectives and make sure that everyone else gets to know - comes to know these people, these great Americans that gave them a gift that's hard to repay.

CONAN: Todd Heisler, you were the person who was there. I assume you had to be very careful not to intrude.

HEISLER: Yeah. That was the most important part for me was that I didn't make the pain any worse. I had to get close because I didn't want this to be - to go unnoticed, this experience. And the families, the families let me in, and I had to be very sensitive to them to not make that pain any worse. But I also had a responsibility to them to do the best job that I could with the images.

CONAN: We have a link to the Final Salute series at our Web site. To read the report - prepare for it, it's moving - and see Todd's photographs, you can visit our website at NPR.org. Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Dave(ph). Dave's calling us from Florida. Dave, are you there?

DAVE: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air.

DAVE: Thank you. I was part of a very old team in North Carolina during the Korean War. And it was my job to present the flag, after it's been folded, to the parents after the firing of the salute over the grave. And this one time - of course, these are things I'll never forget - but this one time, the parents, both of them, refused to accept the flag.

I guess they were just in a state of shock. Anyway, I returned to the ranks, and we marched off, as we always do. And, eventually, we did get the flag to the parents. But I was - it was quite an emotional thing for all of us. You know, we had a station wagon, and we come back to camp, you know, after the event. And this time nobody said a word. We just sat there, couldn't believe it. That was my experience.

CONAN: Thank you for that, Dave.

DAVE: Okay.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.

DAVE: You're welcome.

CONAN: Let me ask you: anger has got to be - as Dave was describing at that particular funeral - anger has got to be a big part of this. Major Beck, do you get that reaction sometimes?

BECK: Well, yes. I'll say, in a word, absolutely. The people are angry because they've lost someone extremely dear to them. They are angry - the anger is, it's more of a sorrowful anger than anger at any one particular individual.

Now, I've had anger directed toward me, but it's not - they're not doing that because they're truly angry with me. I mean, I've - and other casualty officers that are there to help. It's just that it's a natural human response to be somewhat angry when someone you love has been taken from you.

CONAN: Chaplain Wester, I assume you've had that experience, as well.

WESTER: Yes, I've really seen quite a gamut of reactions and anger is one that's somewhat common. And I think Major Beck says it very well - that it's not anger directed at the notification officer or, as some might suspect, anger toward, you know, the Army or the military or anything like that.

I think it's just that sorrowful overwhelming sense of grief and sadness and regret that all pours out, sometimes in the form of anger, sometimes in the form of tears; you know, sometimes in a more stoic way, which, over time, gives way to some other kinds of feelings and reactions. But anger is a piece of it.

CONAN: Let's get Ed on the line. Ed's calling from California.

ED: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Ed.

ED: Thank you. I had both a question and an experience from notification. Thirty-nine years ago this Memorial Weekend, I was 13, and my father was killed in action in Vietnam; he was a Special Forces Green Beret. And what I remember about the notification was that when the doorbell rang, I walked to the door with my mother not knowing who was outside.

And when we opened the door - and this is the only part of the notification I remember because as you said earlier in the show, people are in shock once they realize what happened you pretty much don't remember anything else, but this still stands out in my mind today.

As we opened the door, it was a large, black Army man, a sergeant, I believe - if I remember looking at his insignia correctly; I was 13 at the time. But he was in his Class A uniform and he was already crying before we opened the door.

And he could barely get the words out to us. And he was by himself. And then, of course, he handed the Union telegram to my mom. And I think it maybe lasted all of, from what I can remember, maybe five minutes. And she closed the door. And, you know, as I said, she reacted to the shock differently.

But I just wanted to share that experience that it was so traumatic for this gentleman, I can still see his face today exactly. I mean, I could almost describe it to a T, and the tears streaming down his face before we even opened the door, notified us of my father's death.

CONAN: Yeah. Major Beck, you have to know that for many families, yours is the face that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

BECK: I do, but for all the families that I've been with, I'm very thankful that they'll never forget my face because I'm not going to forget theirs. And I'm going to spend the rest of my life in deep friendship with them as much as I can.

CONAN: Do you try not to show emotion?

BECK: No, but I'm very unsuccessful if I attempt to do something like that. I try to be - I try to stand as strong as I can for them at that time because I'm supposed to be their oak at that time.

CONAN: There's a wonderful description in the Rocky Mountain News series that Todd Heisler took the photographs for, of you saying the people who advised you about this job when you were fist assigned, it said don't hug them.

BECK: Right. Right. I really don't know - the first time I had to do a notification the - I asked for advice from the base - folks at the base that actually do it for the Air Force, and that was the advice I got. And I think that it was just - it's not me. I think that it's probably comes from a lesson learned somewhere in the past. And - but for me it was just simply wasn't going to work that way. And it never did. So...

CONAN: Ed, you had a question as well?

ED: Yes. And last night, I watched "We Were Soldiers," which was presented on I think CBS it was. The first time I had seen the movie. I know it was in theaters a few years back. And one of the things - I found a lot of it accurate from what I can remember from my dad talking about and what I read about Vietnam. But one of the things I was kind of surprised, and they indicated why it was. The initial battle that took place in '65 in la Trang Valley where they lost so many - had so many casualties all at once. And the Army was so overwhelmed by it, that their notification process was they handed the stack of Union Telegrams to a Yellow cab driver, and he was to go to the house and take it up to the door. And I was wondering if that was accurate. They said the Yellow cab drivers were given the notices just to go hand them out, because the Army was so overwhelmed they weren't prepared with - for a notification system yet.

CONAN: Chaplain Wester, are you familiar with this history?

WESTER: Well, I - to some degree, I am, Neal. And I - actually I spent a little time during this weekend trying to dig out a little bit more detail about the history and background on this notification. And it - what's often the case in the military is we kind of borrow whatever worked from the last war and bring it in to the next war. And I - as I mentioned earlier, this business about technology as our friend, or sometimes a real challenge with cellphones etc., but when it comes to notification and the telegrams, at the time that was actually viewed, in the '40s, as a step forward in the - during World War II, it was the normal practice at the beginning of the war to convey this information about casualties over a cable, or over a radio reading the names of those who were seriously wounded or killed back to a military base in the U.S. And then those - that information was just distributed so...

CONAN: Now, casualty lists I remember being posted Civil War. Obviously, I don't remember, but I remember reading about it.

WESTER: Right. So, as I say, the idea of a telegram getting the news there faster was viewed as a positive step forward. You know now, these years later, a telegram seems kind of like an artifact from the long past. And the more personal element of this I think has only grown as the size of the military continues to go down and just the human bond. One of the guys also mentioned something about the sheer volume of casualties. Boy, I came across something that just stunned me about World War II. There was a day, May 27, 1945 - this was representative. But on that single day, there were 7,278 telegrams dispatched.

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the call. I'm sorry we couldn't get a better answer to your question.

ED: Oh, that kind of answers it there. I mean, they seem like the movie was pretty accurate, so I'm assuming they had researched it, but I had never heard that before so - but I appreciate your taking my call.

CONAN: Joe Galloway was a good reporter. Anyway, thanks very much, Ed.

ED: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about death notification, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Brad(ph) is on the line. Brad calling from Jackson, Wyoming.

BRAD: Hi, there. I actually had a question for Todd. I've seen your work as a photojournalist out here in Wyoming. I'm very impressed by what both of you have done - I think it's both to honor the Marines and to sort of honor their memory and whatnot. But I guess the question I had for both of you was what did the families think of the articles and the photographs that you've produced? And are you still in contact with them? And I guess I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Thanks, Brad.

HEISLER: Thank you very much. The families that - we have been in contact with the families. And actually, when we found out that we were - we had won the Pulitzer, we invited Katherine Kathy and her parents and Terri Cooper, the mother of Tommie Slocomb. We had them to the newsroom along with Major Beck to kind of share in the experience because, you know, we felt that it was theirs as well. And Terri Cooper said something - and she is not even mentioned in this story, she was on the first story. And she's mentioned something that really stuck with me, and she said that this is just another memorial to my son. And that seems to be the feeling that we had gotten from every family that's involved in this piece, that they felt that it was true to their experience, and that it represented them well.

CONAN: Major Beck, I understand you got to go to the ceremony in New York where the Pulitzer Prize was presented. I wonder what that was like.

BECK: I did. It was - it was a somewhat somber event for me. I think that what Todd and Jim actually pulled off, you know, the fact that they won is one thing. But the fact that they were able to tell a story that, frankly, has never really been told and to tell it properly, to learn about our culture, to learn about the Marine culture in particular and what we try to do for one another and when we fall has been important. And I think that those that have attempted to tell that story probably have failed. And their dedication to telling it right, to getting it right, and then staying true to the family and the fallen Marines was just wonderful. And the families - I'm in touch with all the families still, and I will remain so for the rest of my life. And so...

CONAN: The article describes one mother saying I thought this Band of Brothers stuff was just nonsense.

BECK: I don't think that was the word she used, but anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It may not have been the word she used, no.

BECK: But yeah, that's Joe Burns, Jocelyn Burns out of Wyoming. Indeed, her son, she - Kyle Burns - really she just thought it was a bunch of hurrah young men. But our dedication to one another goes much, much deeper than that. Our heritage goes back a long, long way.

CONAN: Major Beck, thank you very much for being with us today.

BECK: Sure.

CONAN: Steve Beck joined us from Fort Collins, Colorado. Todd Heisler, congratulations on the Pulitzer and thank you too.

HEISLER: Thank you.

CONAN: Todd Heisler, the photographer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning special report "Final Salute," published in the Rocky Mountain News. And he joined us from the studios of member station KFCR in Centennial, Colorado. Chaplain Wester, I wanted to thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

WESTER: My pleasure, Neal. I wish everyone a Memorial Day that really pays tribute to all those have served. So thanks for the opportunity.

CONAN: Chaplain Eric Wester, a colonel with the U.S. Army, joined us from his office at the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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