- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

With 800 U.S. troops killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, military personnel stationed at home face a challenging mission: notifying next of kin when a death occurs, and helping families cope with the loss.

“Everyone deals with grief in a different way,” said Maj. Mary Bradford, a family readiness officer involved with the death-notification process for families of Marines at California’s Camp Pendleton.

Maj. Bradford said the Marines put hundreds of casualty assistance calls officers, or “CACOs,” through “scenario-driven training” to prepare them for helping a fallen Marine’s next of kin deal with the shock of loss.

“Whoever is going to make a call like this understands how important it is,” she said from Camp Pendleton last week. “It’s a stressful situation, because death is final, and you don’t want anyone to go through that time of pain.”

Camp Pendleton is home to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), which was central in the push to Baghdad last year, and has about 14,000 Marines and sailors posted in Iraq, a solid portion of whom faced combat against insurgents in Fallujah in recent months.

The 1st MEF and units attached to it have lost more than 60 Marines in Iraq in the past two months. That is more than one-quarter of the 209 U.S. troops killed in Iraq since April 1.

At least 920 coalition soldiers have died since the Iraq war began March 19, 2003, according to www.lunaville.org, a Web site keeping an updated tally of the casualties by compiling death notices released by military officials.

U.S. forces have shouldered the bulk of the losses, with 800 troops having died as of Friday. News reports indicate about 30 of the casualties have been soldiers from Maryland, Virginia and the District. Every time a soldier is killed, the wheels are set into motion for military officials at home to break the news to families.

Methods vary slightly among the Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy, although notification is handled with equal gravity. Rear-deployed officers within a fallen service member’s unit usually take up the duty.

A report of the casualty quickly flows from the unit in the war zone to Washington, where officials at branch headquarters will pass the news to commanders near the service member’s home.

An officer there can then be appointed to notify next of kin.

During a Pentagon briefing in March, John Molino, the deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, said it is important “for emotional support to the family” that a team of individuals, rather than a single officer, arrive with the news. In the ideal situation, he said, a military chaplain will also be present.

“Very often, an organization commander will accompany when that’s geographically possible,” Mr. Molino said. “But it doesn’t have to be either one of or both of those people. It can just be any two individuals who are prepared to deliver this sad news.”

Those making the notification will appear at the door in a pressed military dress uniform. The next of kin often is not immediately available.

“Maybe the spouse went to her mother’s house while the service member was deployed,” said Mr. Molino, adding that every effort is made to locate the survivor before any information is released to the press.

Brian Driver, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Casualty Branch in Quantico, Va., said each Marine provides a designated person to be notified in the event of death.

“We do whatever we have to do to find this primary next of kin,” he said, adding that law enforcement or clergy may help if a family member is difficult to locate. Once notification is made, the Defense Department provides $12,000 for immediate expenses, ranging from the funeral to flying in family members to be together.

For the Marines, an officer is assigned to help a spouse and parents cope with the loss. The officer, who remains at the family’s disposal for a year, also might set up a 21-gun salute or arrange the desired method of funeral or burial.

“It’s an honor that you get a chance to give something to a fellow Marine that he or she expects or would have expected, and it’s an honor to take care of a family,” Maj. Bradford said.

“Marines are about taking care of Marines, so this is the ultimate of taking care of a Marine,” she said. “It’s kind of bittersweet.”

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