The call came to Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Stanton last September. A soldier had died and Stanton was to inform the wife living on post at Fort Lewis.
He’d never done it before. On his way, he tried to quell his fears and, as required, memorize the formal script by repeating it to the chaplain who was with him.
“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your ...”
Don’t mess this up, he implored himself. Stay strong.
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Casualty notification teams are advised to be inconspicuous, but that was impossible in this neighborhood. Parents were walking their kids to school. Some adults watched to see which door Stanton and his partner were headed to.
He took a couple of deep breaths. He knocked. The door opened.
That fateful visit – dreaded by giver and receiver alike – has happened thousands of times in the past decade. Today, the nation commemorates another Memorial Day while waging two wars that have killed nearly 5,500 U.S. service members, including 375 with ties to Washington state.
The knock on the door is just the first step in a process of supporting bereaved families. Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s casualty assistance center serves as the regional headquarters for this process, coordinating teams in five states: Idaho, Montana, Northern California, Oregon and Washington.
The center averages four notifications a week, said Patricia George, the center’s chief.
“I wish we were out of business. That would be fine with me,” she said.
Stanton completed a two-day training to notify and assist grieving families when he arrived at Fort Lewis in 2007. This is not a full-time responsibility for soldiers; normally, Stanton works as a maintenance manager.
He wasn’t overly concerned about having to use his training. It’s a big installation, he told himself. Other soldiers would be summoned before he would.
When he got the call, he played out the what-ifs in his mind. What if she screams? What if she lashes out in anger? What if she has a dog?
It turns out there was a dog. But that’s where the script he had written in his mind ended.
The new widow knew why he was there. She invited Stanton and the chaplain to sit down. Stanton wanted to break down, but he delivered the message. “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your ...”
She looked at him. No emotion.
After a time, she asked them firmly to leave. Stanton stepped away from the home, and the tension flowed out of his body.
He said he got goose bumps just relating the story to a reporter.
“That’s the hardest thing I’ve done during 17 years in the military,” said the 35-year-old Stanton, who has twice deployed to Iraq.
chaplain is key
Capt. Jeffrey Van Ness can shut away his time in combat. What the Lewis-McChord chaplain can’t lock up are his memories of spouses and parents when they open the door to see him standing with another soldier.
“You just hold onto this,” said Van Ness, 45. “It’s a very personal and intimate relationship you have with people.”
The chaplain is a key member of the three-faceted team the Army depends on to notify and support families when a soldier is killed. And he or she is often the person with the most experience. Van Ness has made more than a dozen notification visits during this career.
The second member is the casualty notification officer. Like Stanton, they are tasked with providing official notice to family members – typically the spouse and parents – no more than four hours after the assistance center learns of a soldier’s death.
The notification team provides some initial information and lets the family member know a casualty assistance officer will be in touch soon. They console as much as they can and help make arrangements so a friend or family member is on the way.
The third piece of the team is the casualty assistance officer, who informs about military benefits, helps with paperwork and shoulders the basic tasks that can overwhelm grief-stricken families.
The Army has improved the system since the early days of Vietnam, when it sent telegrams or brief sympathy letters. The current wars have brought more changes, George explained: formal training for these officers, increased benefits for families and flights to Dover Air Force Base where they can watch the ceremony where their loved one is returned to the states.
This month, the Army also began paying so families can attend the memorial service at the soldier’s home station.
One common question families pose to George is why being a casualty officer isn’t a separate military occupation.
Van Ness offered a simple explanation.
“The human psyche couldn’t handle it,” he said.
It was Memorial Day 2005 when Linda Crate was visited at her Spanaway home.
Earlier she had been told that her only child, Staff Sgt. Casey Crate, a 26-year-old combat controller for the U.S. Air Force, was missing after a plane crash in Iraq.
A few hours later came another knock on the door. Her son was dead.
“It’s a mother’s worst nightmare to open that door,” she recalled recently.
Crate remembers television crews later gathering outside her home. Her casualty assistance officer, a female rugby player, said: “I’ll get rid of them if you want.” Crate replied: “I bet you could.”
Crate, 67, said she’s invited the officer to attend events and still sees her when Crate attends functions for combat controllers at Lewis-McChord. The officer has also invited Crate to her rugby matches.
Riikka Jacobsen got her knock on the door a few days before Christmas in 2004.
“I honestly don’t remember anything except that he was standing there with the chaplain and asked if we could sit down,” said Jacobsen, now 38.
She was the leader of the family support group for the Fort Lewis company her husband commanded. She had been taking worried phone calls all day from fellow wives wanting information about a dining hall bombing in Mosul, Iraq.
Now Jacobsen would learn that her husband, Capt. Bill Jacobsen, Jr., 31, was one of six Fort Lewis soldiers killed in the attack.
Holding her head in her hands, Jacobsen kept thinking how she had just seen her husband yesterday on a webcam; this must be a mistake.
The notification officer’s voice was kind, gentle.
‘So many of us’
“I can only imagine how horrible it is for them to have to do that, and that day, there were so many of us,” said Jacobsen, who now lives in Utah with the couple’s four children, ages 7 to 13.
Twenty-two people – including 14 U.S. service members – were killed that day.
Jacobsen keeps in contact with the assistance officer who was assigned to her after she temporarily moved to North Carolina to be with her in-laws. Among other things, she said the officer assisted in her application for U.S. citizenship; she is from Finland.
“I really felt taken care of,” she recalled recently. “I think it was just a comfort in that situation, it’s a comfort knowing that there was someone on my side.”
Starting in 2005, the Army required soldiers of senior rank – for enlisted soldiers, that means sergeant first class and higher – to complete a two-day training to serve as casualty notification or assistance officers.
Any of them can be called on to carry out these most somber tasks at the unit commander’s choosing.
Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Quinton, a 35-year-old paralegal at Lewis-McChord, got his call the Sunday after Easter.
Quinton knew he was the face of the Army to this mother whose son was killed. He needed to be a symbol of strength and professionalism. But that didn’t make that first phone call to her to schedule a meeting any easier.
“You’re the last person they want to talk to,” he said.
He worked for her daily for the first three weeks and continues to see her once or twice a week as his assignment nears its end.
Quinton’s relationship with the family has deepened. He has become a guardian, adviser – and ultimately a member of her extended family. He’s been invited to a barbecue. When he learned that an out-of-state group planned to picket at the funeral, he arranged the attendance of the Patriot Guard, a motorcycle group composed mostly of veterans.
Two days after the funeral, the mother told him she was at peace and was ready to return to work.
There have been moments when the strength he’s helped provide her has wavered. Quinton recalled her asking his opinion about whether her son’s body was in a condition to be shown at a viewing before the funeral.
Quinton helped make sure the fallen soldier’s uniform was straight. He helped verify the young man was wearing all the medals and decorations he had earned.
Quinton had mourned the loss of a brother-in-arms. Now a member of the extended family, the emotions that welled up were for the loss of a brother. They returned as he tried to recall that moment recently.
“When you’re looking at a 21-year-old man …” He stopped mid-sentence. He couldn’t continue.
When his duty is finished, Quinton intends to introduce his family to the soldier’s, have a barbecue and go fishing.
“It’s a job none of us ever want to do. It’s been the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my military career.”
Christian Hill: 360-754-5427 firstname.lastname@example.org