Donald Sensing, a Methodist minister in Tennessee who used to be an artillery officer in the U.S. Army, remembers when he had the solemn duty of notifying the next of kin (NOK) after a soldier on his post died.
It was peacetime, the early 1980s – before cell phones or GPS to navigate. I was a first lieutenant assigned to Fort jackson, SC. My name reached the top of the installation-level duty roster just in time to be tabbed for NOK notification. I reported to the post’s casualty office for instructions. There I was assigned a government van and driver and given a written packet of information about the deceased soldier, the address of his NOK, a map and a government credit card.
My instructions were simple: “Memorize this paragraph. You are required to state it verbatim, without notes, to the next of kin. That’s all you have to do.” Unlike the Marines, the Army assigns different officers to notification duty and survivor-assistance duty. An assistance officer (actually a senior NCO) would be assigned to help the dead soldier’s parents with the funeral and settling his affairs; the soldier had not been married.
I got one final instruction before departing: “You must make the notification between 0600 and 2200. Use the credit card for any expenses related to this mission, including food and lodging if you need it. Don’t come back until you have made the notification.”
The dead soldier had been a member of the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. He had died in an auto accident (fact was, he was DWI, but relating that fact was not my problem). The civilian casualty staffer at post HQ told me that tthe soldier’s father already knew his son was dead (via unofficial grapevine channel from his unit), but that it didn’t matter: the Army always sent an officer, in Class A uniform, to deliver the official word. Unlike Maj. Beck, I was alone; my driver was a driver, that’s all. I was also distinctly forbidden to call the NOK by phone, even to ask directions….
“Sir,” I said to him, “I am Lieutenant Sensing from Fort Jackson. I am told this is the home of Mr. ‘George Smith.’ If so, I would appreciate very much speaking with him.”
The man motioned for me to come in and said, “That’s me.” I stepped inside two steps, removing my saucer cap as I did. A young man in the room yelled at a boy to turn off the music, who quickly complied. I recall that there were a couple of women in the room, too.
“Mr. Smith,” I said very formally, “on behalf the secretary of the Army, I extend to you and your family my sympathy in the death of your son, Sergeant ‘Jim Smith.’” I don’t remember after so many years the paragraph I had memorized then. I know I said that another officer would contact them about making arrangements and settling their son’s affairs, and that he would be able to answer all their questions.
Uttering those words was 100 percent of my duties. I finished and Mr. “Smith” mumbled, “Thank you.” He offered his right hand. I shook it and said, “I really am very sorry for your loss, sir.” We dropped hands and briefly looked at one another face to face: he of a weatherbeaten black face, an uneducated farm laborer who had toiled in tobacco or bean fields all his life, who had worked dawn to dark to see his eldest son graduate from high school and become a soldier with a bright future. Then his son got killed one day on a rural road in North Carolina. And the next day I, a lily-white young officer, walked into his home from the night’s darkness. With no personal connection to his son, I stood in his sharecropper’s home purely by random chance of a duty roster to tell him that the secretary of the entire US Army mourned his young son’s death.
via Winds of Change