When Casualty Affairs Comes Calling
Being there at Ground Zero for the first time yesterday was very emotional for me. I brought a picture of my husband and posted it there at the memorial. He would have been very, very proud to have his picture there with the NYPD and the fire department.
I went through a whole day not knowing my husband had been shot," 26-year-old Lauren Fidell* says. She is amazed and somewhat appalled that her best friend and the love of her life whom she'd been with since she was 16 had been lying in Afghanistan with a bullet from an AK-47 through his head while she had been shampooing the carpet. "I thought my body would know, that I would feel if something happened to him. So I was surprised when they knocked on the door that night and told me what had happened. I did not believe that he was dying. But they told me it was imminent."
"They" were of course the men in uniform.
And five months ago they brought Lauren the worst news of her life. While she acknowledges collapsing then, today she is unflinching. Which is not to say she doesn't cryshe doesbut rather that she is undaunted by her tears, and figures I ought to be as well.
When we speak for the first time, we sit in a very public place, a huge hall at New York City's Jacob Javits Center in the midst of a Maritime Security Expo Exhibit. She is there helping to raise funds for the Naval Special Warfare Foundation, a nonprofit that gives scholarships to U.S. Navy SEAL families. We sit at a large, round table in the exhibitors' lounge; two men in suits sit on the other side of the table negotiating a contract. In the course of our conversation, Lauren tears up a couple of times; I tear up a couple of times. When people notice, they politely avert their gaze.
Lauren plows ahead. She remembers every detail of that night, June 24, 2003, she tells me, as if she were watching a moviesomebody else's tragic tale.
It was 10:30 p.m. on a warm June evening. Her children, two- and five-year-old boys, were in bed. Her younger sister was visiting from out of state. "I was getting ready for bed and I had just laid down on the couch to watch TV when there was a knock on the door," Lauren says. "I was halfway across the living room when I realized that it was too late to be a neighbor knocking. I stopped. I had a bad feeling." Lauren stood there, in the middle of the living room, stuck. They knocked again. "My sister came to the top of the stairs and said, 'Open the door. It's just a neighbor.' "
But six men stood in their dress uniforms on Lauren's porch. "They were very stern looking. One of them was the commander of my husband's group. One was a CACO officer," she says, referring to the navy's casualty assistance calls officer. "The CACO officer said my name, then he said who he was and where he was from."
Lauren looked straight at him. "I know who you are," she said.
He spoke: "Your husband was in a convoy that was attacked and he was very seriously injured and is not expected to live."
Lauren began to scream, "I'm not ready yet. I'm not ready yet." Despite the fact that her husband was a navy SEAL, one of the elite units specially trained in dangerous maritime and amphibious operations, that he'd already been called away several times to undisclosed locations in the fight against terrorists, that she was pretty sure he had been in Afghanistan these past eight weeks, she says she hadn't thought about him dying. "I'm not ready yet," she wailed.
"I wanted to talk to him," Lauren recalls. "But they kept saying, 'He's not conscious.' " He had been shot many hours earlier in a clash south of Kabul and had been transported to a hospital in Bagram. "What are his chances?" she asked. "He's dying. It's imminent," they told her. Hoping for a different answer, Lauren asked them again. And again. "It's imminent," they repeated.
"I want to talk to him," she said.
Lauren kept insisting that she wanted to talk to him. But they kept explaining, as if she were not comprehending. "He's unconscious." Finally, they understood that Lauren didn't care whether or not he was conscious, that she thought maybe he could hear her, that she needed to try to talk to him. Eventually they got through to the hospital. "One of his buddies there beside him said, 'Lauren, I'm going to put the phone up to his ear,' " Lauren recalls.
She spoke to him. She reminded him that she was an occupational therapist and it didn't matter what his injuries were, she just didn't want him to die. "I went to school for this," she said. "You're going to come home and I'm going to take care of you. It's going to be okay." She told him what their boys had done that day. She told him that she loved him. "Everything happens for a reason," she said. And then she told him that if he had to go, "It was okay."
Recalling the incident five months later, she wonders why she said that. "I didn't mean it," she admits.
At some point, after several hours, the men in uniform left. And friends began to arrive. The SEALs are a small and tight-knit group, with 1,200 stationed in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Most of the 5,000 active SEALs have spent their entire careers together, back and forth between SEAL postings in San Diego and Virginia Beach. They have trained together, worked together, fought together, ate and slept together for weeks at a time. Their wives, often home alone, have baby-sat each other's children, gone to the movies together, shared Thanksgiving dinners, formed deep friendships. And in the dark hours of the night on June 24, they mourned together. A cluster of women sat on Lauren's bed talking, crying, and listening as Lauren tried to face death. At 3:30 in the morning, Lauren realized the time and felt some relief. "It's morning there nowand he lived," she said. Then she worried. "I thought, 'Oh my God, what if he has to retire from the navy? He's going to be crushed.' Meanwhile everyone around me knew he wasn't coming home."
"I fell asleep then. And when I woke up my sister and my best friend, Teresa, were sitting on my bed. My eyes were still closed when they asked, 'You awake?' " Lauren was, but she didn't want to be. "They said, 'Lauren, we just got word that he passed during the night.' "
"It took a second to register, like I was in a time warp. I was really mad at him. He promised me he'd come home."
Lauren's story, like all these stories of soldiers' families, begins with the knock on the door. Eleven thousand, one-hundred thirty-four knocks on the door by the fall of 2004. Eleven thousand, one-hundred thirty-four families who learn that their husband or son is dead, dying, or injured. Eleven thousand, one-hundred thirty-four encountersoften by strangers who announce a "mishap" (in air force parlance) to a primary next of kin (PNOK) and stand by helplessly as the PNOK crumbles. They meet on doorsteps, in living rooms, in kitchens, in offices. And because the military has been doing this for hundreds of yearsand because there's nothing the military likes better than acronyms and uniformity and reportsa whole literature of death and dying has sprung up in the form of policy manuals, pamphlets, PowerPoint presentations, and protocols. And, as the war against terrorism drags on, a new slew of specialists has been activated, soldiers every bit as pivotal to the smooth functioning of the armed forces machine as its maintenance mechanics. Teasingly called "diggers" by their buddies, these soldiers "go where others fear to go," as the director of Mortuary Affairs at Fort Lee, Virginia, put it in his Ode to the Mortuary Affairs Specialist:
They do things that others will not do.
The sights, sounds and smells of what they do,
On the battlefield and on the home front, soldiers are being called on to recover, identify, and refrigerate remains, to "cosmetize" them, to transport them, to notify families, to bury them, and to assist families in the weeks following a soldier's death. And every possible element that can be controlled by the Department of Defense (DOD) is orchestratedeven micromanaged and scriptedfrom spelling out who gets a live bugler (active duty) and who gets a boom-box version of "Taps" (vets) to specifying what rank the "notifier" must be (equal to or higher than the person who died). Perhaps because a little order helps alleviate the awful randomness of these events, the Department of Defense wants its soldiers spit-shined and on the mark here.
When it comes to death and dying, the military are Masters of Ceremony.
A soldier's death calls for a brilliant display of patriotism, a nod to the notion of cause as a way of affirming that this death was not in vain. While its commander in chief may occasionally stumble (the fact that President George W. Bush had not made a single condolence visit or phone call to a dead soldier's family sent a ripple of shock through the military community in November 2003), military brass understands that death mattersand may indeed be its most critical public relations campaign. Compassion and spectacle are essential to winning the hearts and minds of the American public, and the military firmly believes that these elements canwith proper attention to detailbe manufactured.
Training for death detail is thorough.
"We're in a zero-defect environment," says Frederick Calladine, chief of Casualty and Mortuary Affairs at Fort Drum near Watertown, New York. "We like to make sure everything is done correctly. If we do make a mistake, the whole army pays the price. And that price is public ridicule, mistrust, and distrust. Then we've created an enemy of the army by the families, and we don't want to do that."
Calladine addresses his remarks to a group of forty soldiers on March 20, 2003, the evening the war with Iraq began. These men and women at Fort Drum have the dubious distinction of being the newly appointed casualty notification officers for their units. Hand-picked by their supervisors, they are getting the PowerPoint ABC's of military mortuary manners. "Wear your dress uniform," Calladine tells them, and remember that some wives want to kill the messenger. "Give them the news, then get the hell out of Dodge."
Though military wives live with a vague sense of dread that is often described as coming home to see an unknown dark car parked in the driveway, Calladine says the cars used are simply the notifier's own vehicles and that they are specifically told not to lurk about. "If nobody's home, don't sit there like a bulldog waiting for them to come home," he says. "Go get a cup of coffee, check the neighbors to see if you can find out if they're on vacation or whatever."
And be careful, Calladine says. "Make sure we aren't informing the wrong people." This isn't just hypothetical. The same week that Calladine conducted this training there was a helicopter crash at Fort Drum, a routine training accident in which eleven soldiers died when a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter went down in the forest. "We had the name of an individual who might've been on board who, as it turns out, wasn't. So if we had rushed out and said, 'Oh so-and-so was on this and killedand then he shows up, we're going to look like a bunch of idiots."
When the proper primary next of kin is located, the rest is scripted. Literally. "I have an important message to deliver from the Secretary of the Army, may I come in, Mr. Jones," says a "Casualty Notification Guide for the Casualty Notification Officer," which Calladine offers to his audience. Sample scripts follow:
(1) For death cases: "The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your (relationship; son, Robert or husband, Edward; etc.) (died/was killed in action) in (country/state) on (date). (State the circumstances provided by the Casualty Area Command.) The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss."
According to Calladine, the next thing most wives or parents want to know is exactly what happened. " 'What happened? How could it happen?' they'll ask. You're not allowed to tell them. You don't know," Calladine says. "Don't commit the army to anything. Even if you know gory details of the incident, you don't give them." Depending on the service more details are provided in the next few days, weeks, or months after investigations are complete.
Giving out these details is the job of the casualty assistance officer. "Sometimes when you tell families about a death there's a wall thrown up instantly," Calladine says. " 'Okay, you've told me, now get out!' that kind of thing. There's that controlled anger against the messenger. We just do what they say and we get out. Then we try to get hold of them later to have another person go out and help with paperwork and benefits. That's the casualty assistance officer and that's why we split it into two categories."
Timing is everything. Notification can't be done before Calladine's office gets official, faxed confirmation from the Department of the Army (DA)even if he can see the burning hulk of a helicopter crash from his office window. And it must be made within four hours of hearing from the DA but not after 10 p.m.
"Why not past 2200 hours?" one soldier wonders.
"DA policy," Calladine says. He realizes this is, perhaps, an unsatisfactory answerand scrambles. "We don't want to go in the middle of the night and wake people up and tell them that their loved ones are dead. We, uh, want to wake them up at 6 o'clock in the morning and do it instead."
For Lauren, there is just The Knock. There is her life pre-Knock and there is Now. The story of who she is now, and who her family is and will become, begins with the Knock on the door. Any vague "happily ever after" image that she carried in her head is gone. The disorientation sets in. There used to be a line from here to therethis is my life now and if I drift along like this I will end up therethat has been interrupted. The Future now requires conscious thought.
"I've never even been on a date as an adult woman," Lauren says. Death came to her, she insists, out of the blue. "I've never lost anyone young or really close to me before. I never thought about him dying in combat. I thought that he might get hurt in training," Lauren admits. "We've had friends that had gotten hurt and even died in training. It was almost a regular occurrence that people would blow off fingers or have jumping accidents. I expected something like that, but not this."