Death’s Messenger: One Soldier’s Job Delivering the Worst News Imaginable

“There’s still a war going on,” Captain Richard Siemion began. “There are still people dying—not as many as before—but it’s still happening. And when it does, the Army sends somebody like me to break the news.”

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Mar 18 2014, 4:10pm

Photo courtest of Richard Siemion

“There’s still a war going on,” Captain Richard Siemion began. “There are still people dying—not as many as before—but it’s still happening. And when it does, the Army sends somebody like me to break the news.”

Captain Siemion was recently honorably discharged but was one of several casualty notification officers serving in upstate New York. Whenever a soldier’s death was reported, the CNO on duty would have four hours to track down the deceased’s family and deliver some of the worst news they would ever hear.

CNOs have been the focus of some interest over the last decade of American war. In 2006, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News published a Pulitzer Prize–winning series about the Marines tasked with the same job as Captain Siemion, and in 2009 Woody Harrelson starred in the independent film The Messenger. He played a CNO.

I sat down with the 31-year-old Siemion to talk about his first-hand experience telling families of active-service soldiers that their loved one have died in action.

VICE: Did you volunteer for the job?
Captain Siemon: We call it being voluntold. I had just gotten back from my first tour in Afghanistan when my Battalion Commander sent me to the training course.

What did you learn there?
You learn that there’s no right way to tell someone that their loved one is not returning from war, but there are a lot of wrong ways to do it. If you look at history, the way they used to tell families about a death: You had telegrams, you had taxi drivers paid to ring doorbells, you had word of mouth. Through trial and error, the United States Army got it as close to right as they can. I was always the kind of leader who didn’t go 100 percent by the book, but in this case, I went right by the book, because there is a reason why they have it the way they do. Not much room for creativity.

What do you think they got right?
One thing is the idea that no job is more important than this job. So, if you’re in the middle of an important brief with a Colonel and you get called to give a notification, you say, “Gotta go.” Another thing is that you go in person. It shows the importance. Obviously you’re never going to see that individual again, or be their best friend, but if my brother died, I’d rather have it straight—face-to-face. 

Did they teach you how to handle your own emotions?
My bosses were really understanding that it could be rough on me. I mean, everybody handles it differently. I was told about a guy who had to give multiple notifications  and eventually took his own life on a train track. I think I handled it better than most people would given the same circumstance. I honestly really enjoyed it. There are so few things in the Army that give you instant gratification like that. It’s painful and awful, but you’re doing a service.

What’s the sequence of events for delivering a notification?
You get briefed, you get your dress blues ready, and you go over the paperwork. That’s when you realize how important paperwork is, because each soldier fills out a DD93 where they write their address. Sometimes the handwriting is real sloppy. It can be a little frustrating.

What other ways do you track people down?
Well, for example, every soldier has an ERB or ORB which is a record of their career in the army—deployments, units, awards—so that helps. The other thing I started doing was looking up a soldier’s Facebook profile. I would use that as a kind of positive identification to see what the deceased looks like, what his kids look like, what his wife looks like. You don’t want to drag it out by saying, “Hey, are you so-and-so?” because that’s how you’re supposed to start out. But if you have that Facebook picture, you can skip that step and just move forward to asking if you can come inside the house. You want to get inside as quickly as possible. You don’t want to do it on the porch there in front of all the neighbors.

What is the car ride there like?
Well, the protocol is that you travel with a pastor, so there’s usually conversation. We’d start talking about just any old thing. A lot of times it was like a Quentin Tarantino movie. It was really suspenseful, like the suspense that comes before the violence.

Only in this case the violence is emotional rather than physical.
That’s a good way of putting it.

What kinds of things did you talk about?
We’d make jokes and we’d laugh, you know, to break the tension. And in between breaks in the conversation, I would start rehearsing again what I was going to say. I’d recite it, and the pastor would typically critique how I sounded. You can’t over-rehearse, though, because it has to sound like it comes from the heart.

How would you actually deliver news of the death?
There’s a whole spiel. There’s a script that I memorized. It’s the same for everybody—you just replace names and locations.

How does it start?
The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your son, or husband, or brother—whoever it is—was killed in action yesterday in such-and-such province or wherever it was, and then the details about their death. Typically you don’t have all the details. Sometimes you’ll know just a few things—whether it was small arms fire, or suicide, or a motorcycle crash. Whatever you say, they always ask for more details. The standard response is, “There is an ongoing investigation. Once the investigation is complete, you will have full access to the report.”

How do people react?
Devastation is the best way to put it. But I've heard horror stories of people pulling out shotguns, or where the wife was cheating on her husband, and said, “I know what you’re here for. Cut the bullshit. How much money do I get?” I didn’t experience that at all. You see the love there. I might’ve been a little more cynical about army wives before doing this job, but I realize now how tough it can be.

Did the families often know right away why you were there?
A lot of times, the family would know as soon I got out of the car. People with family members overseas are nervous every day for their loved ones. But sometimes denial is a very powerful thing. They hold onto that hope that it’s not as bad as they think it is. One time I started the spiel, “The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your husband…” And then the dog started barking, and the wife went over to quiet the dog, and was with the dog for a couple minutes and then I had to start again.

After you told them, did you try to offer comfort?
I wasn’t there to console anybody. That’s what the chaplain’s there for. The most natural thing to do would be to hug somebody who just lost her husband or son, but you’re supposed to step back and just do the mission at hand.

What did the pastors do?
I had Mormon, Protestant, and Catholic pastors, so everybody was different. They all have their own training. A lot of the time, they’ll just go over and place a hand on the shoulder and ask what that person needs. One chaplain was more touchy-feely; another wanted to talk things through.

How did you know when to leave?
You’re not supposed to linger. I never tried to. I try to get as much information as I can out there. I try to make the casualty affairs officer’s job a lot easier, because he’s the one who’s going to be coordinating with the family after I leave. I remember one time, the wife said that she was getting tired of seeing uniforms, so I asked, “Would it be easier for you if the casualty affairs officer came in his regular civilian clothes rather than his dress blues?” She said, “Yes.” So, that’s what he did. A widow, you know, she’s like a bride on her wedding day—whatever she wants, she gets. The Casually Affairs Center is very respectful of the family’s needs.

What was the hardest moment for you?
A lot of times they asked, “Did he suffer?” And I don’t lie. I said, “I don’t know.” I’m not going to say, “No, he didn’t suffer,” only to find out later that he was in agonizing pain for an hour and a half. I would say, “I’m sorry. I don’t really know the answer that question.” One person asked me, “Why? Why did this happen?” I said, “Honestly, I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to answer that question. Never. I could have 1,000 years, and I would never be able to answer that.”

Roc’s new book, Andwas released last year. You can find more on his website.

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