In Notification of Army Deaths, More Pain
By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
-- -- After Neil Santorello heard the
news that his son, a tank commander, had been killed in Iraq,
from the officer in his living room, he walked out his front
door and removed the American flag from its pole. Then, in
tears, he tore down the yellow ribbons from his tree.
Rather than see it as the act of a man unmoored by the death of
his 24-year-old son, the officer, an Army major, confronted Mr.
"Don't be disrespectful," Mr. Santorello recalled. Then, the
officer, whose job it is to inform families of their loss,
quickly disappeared without offering any comfort.
Later, the Santorellos heard a piece of crushing but inaccurate
news: They would not be allowed to look inside their son's
coffin. First Lt. Neil Santorello, of Verona, Pa., had been
killed by an improvised bomb. His body, the family was told, was
The Santorellos eventually learned that families have the right
to see a loved one's body.
"I asked them to open the casket a few inches so I could reach
in and touch his hand," recalled Mr. Santorello, who is still
struggling with his son's death, in large part because he was
not allowed to see him.
"The government doesn't want you to see servicemen in a casket,
but this is my son. He is not a serviceman. You have to let his
mother and I say goodbye to him."
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.
When the system works smoothly, and it often does, families say
they feel a profound sense of comfort. But others have seen
their hurt deepen.
They have complained about coffins placed in cargo bays
alongside crates, personal belongings that disappear, questions
about how their loved ones died that go unanswered for months or
even years, and casualty assistants who are too poorly trained
to walk them through the labyrinth of their anguish.
After three years of war in Iraq, with the number of active-duty
deaths there surpassing 2,330, the military is scrambling to
improve the way it cares for surviving relatives and honors
soldiers who have been killed in battle. Even senior officials,
including the secretary of the Army, have acknowledged flaws in
Not since the Vietnam War have so many service members in dress
uniforms knocked on so many doors to deliver such somber news.
The Army, which has suffered the largest number of deaths, 1,589
as of March 28, has faced an enormous challenge and has received
the sharpest criticism for its treatment of surviving families
and soldiers killed in action.
Now it is rushing through new regulations to overhaul the
casualty process, which has been tinkered with, but not fully
revised, since 1994. "We take it to heart whenever something is
not done properly and are painfully aware of the additional
grief it brings to the family concerned," said Col. Mary
Torgersen, the director of the Army's Casualty and Memorial
Affairs Operation Center, in an e-mail response to questions,
adding that some changes have already been put in place.
For some grieving families, the cracks in the system have
deepened their distress and many have been turned to Congress,
state officials and private lawyers for help.
Many wonder why it has taken the military so long to address
their concerns. The answer appears straightforward: The military
did not expect to be fighting this long. It also did not expect
to lose this many soldiers.
Lapses in the past few years run from the heart-wrenching to the
head-scratching. Families have said that items like cameras and
computers containing treasured e-mail messages and photographs
have been lost or damaged.
Gay and Fred Eisenhauer, of Pinckneyville, Ill., whose son,
Wyatt, an Army scout, was killed last May in Iraq by an
improvised bomb, are still hoping to receive their son's watch,
eyeglasses and cellphone. The phone is precious because it holds
a recording of their son's voice. A combat patch they were
promised has never arrived.
"I know these are little things," Mrs. Eisenhauer said. "What
makes it important to me is that my son was good enough to go
over there to fight, but he is not important enough to get his
stuff back to his family."
Colonel Torgersen said the Casualty and Memorial Affairs
Operation Center "aggressively monitors the movement" of
personal effects. Mortuary specialists inventory, photograph,
clean and then ship belongings to the center via Federal
Soldiers, in their coffins, usually arrive from Dover Air Force
Base in the belly of a commercial flight. But honor guards have
not always been present as the coffins come off the plane.
The Eisenhauers had hoped to take comfort in the military
rituals. Instead, the airline placed Private Eisenhauer's coffin
in a cargo warehouse with crates and boxes stacked high around
it. There was no ceremony, no flag over the coffin.
Only the airport firefighters did their bit to honor him,
hoisting flags on their ladder trucks.
"I just wanted to scream," Mrs. Eisenhauer said. "My son was
owed that. He was owed that."
When Joan Neal of Gurnee, Ill., went to the airport for the body
of her son, Specialist Wesley Wells, 21, she was aghast. "To
glance over and see your child's casket on a forklift is not
really the kind of thing you want to see," Ms. Neal said.
News of a death has also been delivered at awkward times. Ms.
Neal was at work when she was notified in September 2004 that
her son had been killed in Afghanistan, and Mrs. Eisenhauer's
6-year-old niece was in the room when Mrs. Eisenhauer received
As parents to a married son, the Santorellos experienced
something that is commonplace: The Army focuses on the spouse
and has often left parents to fend for themselves.
The Santorellos were not assigneda casualty assistant and were
expected to pay their own way to a memorial ceremony in Fort
Riley, Kan., and to find transportation to the burial at
"We were not considered next of kin," said Mr. Santorello, who
with his wife, Dianne, opposes the war. "He was my son for 25
years. He was her husband for 22 months, and I had no say."
Recognizing the distress of parents with married children, the
Army in mid-February began assigning casualty assistants to
mothers and fathers.
Some families say that the most upsetting aspect of the casualty
process may be the lack of information about how the loved ones
In a 2005 survey of 50 military families by The Military Times,
about half of the families said they did not know enough about
their loved ones' deaths.
Parents and spouses crave details to help them cope,
particularly because they cannot visit the spot where loved ones
died: Who held his hand? Did he say anything?
"You know what my casualty assistant said? 'These are just
questions you will never get answers to,' " Ms. Eisenhauer said.
"But there were men there. Why can't I get answers?"
The Santorellos were told by the Army that their son had died
instantly. A few weeks later, they received a letter saying he
had lived for four hours.
Mrs. Santorello learned the time of death by reading the autopsy
report. "I don't think anyone should be forced to read an
autopsy report to find out when their son died," she said.
Ms. Neal's casualty officer told her that her son had been
killed in action by a gunshot wound to the chest. After her
son's funeral, Ms. Neal learned that he might have been killed
by his own forces.
She had been told that she would be notified in 30 days. Seven
months later, when she still had not received further news, she
took a plane to Hawaii, where her son had been stationed, to
talk with his superiors, who greeted her warmly.
"They did confirm he was killed by American bullets," she said.
"The autopsy was done within a week of his death. They knew that
when they did the autopsy."
A Personal Apology
Karen Meredith's son Lt. Ken Ballard, 26, a fourth-generation
Army officer and a tank commander, was killed in Iraq in May
Her experience went so awry that she received a personal letter
of apology last September from the secretary of the Army,
Francis J. Harvey.
The problems began when her casualty officer abandoned her after
10 days, just as the process was beginning. It also took five
months to receive Lieutenant Ballard's personal belongings. His
clothes were returned washed, which might have made some
families thankful, but devastated her. But there was worse to
The week her son died, Ms. Meredith was told that he had been
killed by enemy fire.
Fifteen months later, there was a knock on the door. Ms.
Meredith was told by an Army casualty official that her son's
death had been accidental. Her son had been killed when his tank
backed into a tree branch, setting off an unmanned machine gun.
"It was not a secret," said Ms. Meredith, now an outspoken
critic of the war. "It was incompetence."
"The subliminal assumption is that they take care of
everything," added Ms. Meredith, who credits the Army for
responding to her complaints and working to fix the system.
"They don't. I was tenacious."
Even when soldiers are alive, it can be difficult to get
answers. Laura Youngblood, 27, was seven months pregnant with
their second child in New York last July when her husband was
wounded by an improvised bomb in Iraq.
Because of the pregnancy, she said, the corpsman assisting her
did not want to tell her that her husband was "very seriously
injured." When she was finally told he was off his ventilator,
she recalls saying, "Good, because you never told me he was on
Six days after being wounded, he died.
A Sensitive Duty
Many casualty assistants say they recognize the sensitive nature
of their task and are assiduous about getting it right. Although
all services have different casualty policies. The Marines,
steeped in tradition, have been mostly praised for the way they
handle the jobs. But all agreed that the job of a casualty
assistant is a difficult one. At times, they have become the
focus of a family's anger. Sometimes they suffer emotionally,
watching as wives crumble or children hysterically cry "Daddy."
Afterward, some casualty assistants seek counseling.
"It's hard," said Sgt. First Class Julio Correa, 44, who is
based at Fort Bragg, N.C., and has notified two families of
deaths and assisted two others. "You see the kids screaming. You
think, 'It could be my kids.' "
But typically the Army's notification officers, who bring news
of the death, and its casualty assistants, who help families
afterward, are picked simply because they are nearby. Their
training often amounts to reading a manual and watching a video.
Casualty duty is a side job. The officers and assistants are
told to focus on families as long as needed, typically six
weeks. Sometimes they retire or are reassigned midstream. Eric
K. Schuller is a senior policy adviser for the Illinois
lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, whose office has dealt with
distraught families, including the Eisenhauers and Ms. Neal.
"This had to be fixed," Mr. Schuller said. "There were so many
of them over a large period of time."
Still, the casualty process has improved since the Vietnam War,
when it amounted to little more than face-to-face notification
of a death.
"It is dramatically different now in terms of how they respond
and the number of survivor benefits," said Morton Ender, a West
Point sociology professor. "They really embrace the family."
The Army acknowledges that more can be done. Mr. Harvey, the
Army secretary, ordered an investigation last September to help
address families' concerns.
The report, issued in January, included suggestions that the
Army is planning to implement, including upgrading training
materials, creating a 24-hour hot line and sending mobile
casualty assistance training teams across the country.
The Army now requires commanders to telephone families within a
week of a death and to cross-check casualty reports.
Congress has asked for an investigation by the Government
These instances, Colonel Torgersen said, "do cause us to reflect
on our processes."
She added, "In the end, however, this work is carried out by
human beings and however hard we may strive, none of us are
invulnerable to error on occasion."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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