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Worst war news is borne with both dread and care
By Edward Colimore
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

FORT DIX, New Jersey - The government car pulls up in front of the house, and two people get out. A uniformed soldier and a chaplain head up the sidewalk, rap on the door, and offer devastating words: "The secretary of the Army regrets to inform you..."

This is the moment that families of military men and women serving in Iraq most dread - the one with news of a loved one killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Breaking that news is "one of the toughest jobs" in the Army, said Joe Logan, a retired major and civilian program director for the military personnel directorate at Fort Dix, which helps oversee the notifications and assists survivors. "It's difficult... . It sticks with you."

Nobody wants such duty, so soldiers are placed on a rotation, all of them hoping they won't be the ones forced to bear sad tidings.

"We send out the notification officer with the news," said Logan, a Vietnam War veteran. "That's the tough one. Then we send someone else out - the casualty assistance officer - to help the families through the arrangements, benefits and insurance."

Four families in the region have received sad news, Logan said. The soldiers include Sergeant James Riley, 31, of Pennsauken, who was taken prisoner in Iraq when Iraqi soldiers ambushed an Army supply convoy near Nasiriyah, and Captain Christopher Seifert, 27, of Easton, an Army intelligence officer with the 101st Airborne Division who was killed in Kuwait when a grenade was lobbed into his tent, allegedly by a fellow soldier.

Logan's office covers all of New Jersey plus the five southeastern counties of Pennsylvania and the 12 southernmost counties of New York.

"Very often there is shock, screaming and crying," said Fort Dix Army Chaplain Richard Vann, who, along with other chaplains, has sometimes accompanied the soldier notifying the family. "We take over after the notification, offering crisis and grief management. It might involve reading Scripture, and we might ask for permission to pray."

Vann and Chaplain Ira Kronenberg, a rabbi, said the chaplains went along as much to support the notification officer as to help the family.

"The initial shock is great," Chaplain Kronenberg said. "People who have religious faith find that extremely comforting."

Logan was a notification officer in Alaska on Memorial Day weekend in 1973 when a boating accident at a military recreation camp killed five people, four of them from one family - a sergeant first class; his daughter; the daughter's fiance, who was a soldier under Logan's command; and two children.

"The weather had changed abruptly while they were out on a fishing boat," Logan said. "I had to tell her [the sergeant's wife] that she lost her whole family. She pulled out a pistol and was going to kill herself."

Logan said the woman, who was German and had no family in the United States, got through the crisis. "It was lousy, lousy," he said of his feelings at the time.

Logan said notification and casualty assistance officers are on call 24 hours a day and feel an urgency in giving relatives the news before they hear it from other sources, such as the news media or a military comrade over a cell phone. Death notifications came by telegram in World War II and by military officials by the Vietnam War.

Not everyone is up to the task. "We do make an assessment whether the person is suitable for this type of duty," Logan said. "We tailor the person to the case so they can answer the questions that come up."

"Sometimes we have to wait," Logan said. "You cannot notify before 6 a.m. in the morning, and you cannot notify after 11 p.m. at night... . And you just can't sit outside in a government vehicle without all the neighbors knowing what's going on."

The officer tells the families that a casualty assistance officer will be by the next day to provide information on benefits and answer other questions.

Families receive a $6,000 check for initial expenses and may receive $250,000 through group life insurance, Logan said. The deceased can be buried in Arlington National Cemetery or another cemetery of the family's choosing, he said. Other benefits include the so-called widow's pension, $948 a month tax-free.

"Losing someone is difficult," Logan said. "We're here to help people get through it."

Posted: 17 April 2003