For the military, announcing death of loved one is no easy task

Saturday, November 29, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Catherine Perusse remembers the chilling call she and husband Ted got one recent Tuesday. The military phoned to tell them their son, Robert T. Benson, of Spokane, Wash., had been badly wounded in Iraq and transferred to a hospital in Kuwait. Surgery had gone "as planned."

That's the last thing the family heard until 20 hours later when they were told he was dead.

"We were just very frustrated to have a 20-hour time period with a very brief message about his status," says Perusse, Benson's stepmother. "You would consider five minutes a terrible time to wait to hear about your child."

There is no good way to tell someone their husband, wife, son or daughter has been killed in action.

Still, as the bodies of U.S. servicemen come home from Iraq, some families are disquieted by the military's handling of this heartbreaking news.

Their grief has been compounded by the slow pace of getting word, or the lack of detail when they do find out.

Even in this world of rapid communications, some families complain that they hit barriers when trying to get in touch with someone who may have information about their loved ones.

Lisa Perez's brother died in July and she still doesn't have all her questions answered.

An officer notified Perez and her mother that 24-year-old Pfc. Wilfredo Perez Jr. was killed in a grenade attack in July while guarding a children's hospital in Iraq. But when the officer came by to tell them the news, he took their Social Security numbers and was gone in 10 minutes.

"He handled his business and that was it," says Perez, 25, of Ridgewood, N.Y.

Notification no easy task

The military does its best to get notification out to families as swiftly as possible -- within 24 hours ideally -- on what it does know about the circumstances surrounding death and injury.

That's often no easy task in a complex war so far away.

Each branch of the armed forces does the notifying when its service member dies or is wounded. A notification officer and a chaplain go to the spouse's home, or if single, to the parents' home.

Sometimes, an organization commander will go, too. They bring with them a manila envelop with the casualty report.

Additional relatives get a visit if the death was caused by hostile action or by a terrorist attack.

Molino says in that first visit, mainly the family wants "just a quiet moment."

Perusse wanted more than that after the initial word her stepson was wounded. Benson was shot in the head at a checkpoint in Baghdad.

She found the lack of communication between the family and the military frustrating -- time zone differences seemed to hamper their ability to be in the know faster.

"You'd think if we could talk to the moon, we should have been able to talk to Kuwait."

Despite all that, she and other family members know it is not easy for the military, either.

"The Army has been wonderful," she says, "and treated us and our son with great respect."


Relatives dread nothing more than the unexpected drop-in by a military officer while a family member is on duty overseas.

John Johnson, the father of Specialist Darius T. Jennings, knew the instant he saw an officer and chaplain's car pull up to his house in Cordova, S.C., that something bad had happened to his son.

"I knew they weren't coming to recruit anyone," he says. Jennings, 22, was killed when the helicopter he was riding in was shot down in Al Fallujah, Iraq.

Johnson was standing in his driveway when he saw them. "I know it's my son, but tell me how it happened," he recalled telling them. They went into the house. '"Is this the right address?"' they asked, just to be absolutely sure. "They grabbed my wife's hand and told her that her son was killed in a helicopter attack."

"I feel that the Army...they did what they could," he said.

More than 435 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq -- about 300 of them since President Bush declared May 1 that major combat operations had ended.

The president has sent a letter to families of each fallen soldier, visited some of the injured ones in hospitals and met with groups of families.

Recently, Bush visited Fort Carson military base in Colorado. Fort Carson has lost 27 soldiers in Iraq, and Bush was meeting privately with nearly 100 relatives of the victims. Four of the victims were among the 16 soldiers killed Nov. 2 when a helicopter was shot down in the dangerous Sunni Triangle near Fallujah, Iraq.

A casualty assistance officer follows up at a prearranged time with the family a day or two after they've been notified of the death.

The officer gives families details on compensation to survivors: a death gratuity of $12,000; reimbursement of up to $6,900 for burial expenses; the soldier's unpaid pay and allowances; a monthly check for the surviving spouse until remarriage and surviving children until they reach a certain age; and Social Security benefits.

A letter from the commander follows.

The casualty assistance officer tries to cater to the family's immediate needs. Burial logistics are discussed.

Members who die while on active duty are eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where the nation buries many of its war dead. But many families choose to have their loved ones buried in their hometown.

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