Originally created 04/09/03

When soldiers die, a grim duty begins

It might be half a world away from the battlefield, but it's a tough mission nonetheless. When a soldier dies or goes missing in combat, it's the job of another soldier back home to notify the family.

"Suddenly, you're going out to a family you've never met and have to give them the news," said Col. Wilfred Brewster Jr., the installation chaplain at Fort Gordon. "It can be very challenging and, sometimes, overwhelming."

After the death of a Barnwell, S.C., soldier in Iraq last week, Fort Gordon officials were first to notify the family.

The post's notification staff and chaplain's office are responsible for notifying and supporting families in nearly 300 square miles, regardless of service branch, Col. Brewster said.

Officers on the installation rotate on the duty roster as casualty notification officer, the one responsible for officially notifying the next of kin, said Marla Jones, a public affairs officer at Fort Gordon.

The experience can take its toll, Col. Brewster said.

"Imagine that you have a young officer who's doing this for the first time," he said. "People react differently with each process, with each family."

Notification of a casualty - defined by the Army as any situation in which a service member is declared beleaguered, besieged, captured, detained, injured, ill, imprisoned by enemy forces, missing (in action or not), wounded, whereabouts unknown, or killed - is done in person.

Fort Gordon sent a casualty notification officer and a chaplain to notify the family of Sgt. George Buggs in Barnwell, Col. Brewster said.

Each family reacts differently to the news, he said.

After the next of kin are notified, chaplain services and a casualty affairs officer are available to help the family with arrangements, counseling and other services, he said.

Col. Brewster said he and the staff train regularly, but before the war began in March he conducted a revamped monthly training session for casualty notification and care of family members.

"It was a refresher course for some, and we'll continue to do that as the situation warrants," he said.

The job isn't easy, but it is one of the highest honors of service that anyone in the military can perform, Col. Brewster said.

"We don't see it as anything that would incapacitate us. It's part of the cycle that, when called upon, bears a priority," he said.

Reach Jeremy Craig at (706) 823-3409 or jeremy.craig@augustachronicle.com.


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