Learning How to Say: “We Regret to Inform You That…”

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The pain of war isn’t limited to the front lines. Sometimes it ricochets all the way back home. That’s what Army Major Brent Fogleman learned following a tour in Afghanistan. His next assignment was as rear detachment commander for the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, at Fort Richardson, Alaska, supporting those fighting in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He shared his experience in an interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in hope of smoothing the way for future officers. But learning how to tell a family their loved one has been killed in combat never gets easier. Some highlights:

Q: You put together information packets for all the Soldiers and their families to keep in your office so you would have information you needed should you need to contact people for any reason…

A: We had to have the Soldiers fill them out and bring them back to us. There were a handful of families who didn’t want that personal information out so we had to secure them. It was really only me and my rear detachment first sergeant who had access to them. It’s difficult to really explain the main reason why we’re doing it, you know? But sometimes we did and that kind of loosened them up a little bit…

I talked about the packets we had on all the families — it was important to know where they were staying. The first notification — I had not had any official training and I know that sounds bad. If you have the right personality and if you frame that problem of notification in the right way you can do it.

Eventually we took a training course with the Casualty Assistance Office which is a Department of the Army training. There are two trainings; one if for casualty notification and one is for the Casualty Assistance Officer. The Casualty Notification Officer is the officer that goes with the chaplain, knocks on the door, and notifies someone that a Soldier is deceased; killed in action (KIA).

The other notification we do is injury notification and that can be done with a phone call so we would do that. The Casualty Assistance Officer — we would generally have our E7s do that and that’s the support given to the spouse or family member of a Soldier who was killed. They can handle really any support they need from the Army. They would stay on and help that family member…

If they had a KIA incident in theater I would generally get a phone call from the artillery battalion commander, if it was in that unit, or from the brigade XO, if it was a Soldier in the brigade. Usually those phone calls came at 0200 so the Blackberry was by the bed every night.

It was pretty much 24/7 operations for the rear detachment. We’d get a call, “Hey, heads up. This just happened.” I would know to expect to go into the casualty assistance office within three to four hours because they would get the official report about the casualty. For a death I would go with dress greens in hand. I’d link up with the chaplain and wait for all the information to come through. I’d then figure out where the spouse was or the family member.

If I was going to do the notification I’d go from there with the chaplain and conduct the notification, or if it was someone else I would contact them. As the brigade rear detachment commander I would call the battalion rear detachment commander and generally their battalion commander had already called them and given them the heads up. We tried to do notifications by unit unless there was a catastrophic event and several Soldiers were killed.

For instance, on 20 January 2007 we had eight Soldiers killed in two different events so we pretty much had to use all of our casualty notification officers to make those notifications.

Q: You said that sometimes you did these notifications yourself?

A: Yes, I conducted three…We’d conduct notification and then the chaplain would stay with that person; I’d step out and make a quick phone call to the Casualty Assistance Office and say, “Yes, this person has been notified.” They tracked it at Department of the Army level and they could provide that feedback. Generally, if it’s a spouse locally we’ll notify them and the parents who are somewhere else in the country are notified by a local casualty notification officer. We continue to do that until everyone is notified.

As far as the [Family Readiness Group] notification piece, when we had a casualty — once we got the official notification from the Casualty Area Command (CAC) because they have the paperwork in hand that casualty occurred — I would send out an email that said, “This incident happened. There were,” for instance, “two Soldiers killed and two wounded in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion.” No names and no specifics just, “Hey, this happened. If you’re wondering why you’re not getting your normal 0800 phone call, that’s why.” Once all the notifications are complete then I could put out the names and the units.

That’s the other thing. In that initial email out I would also include the unit that was involved in the incident. Once all notifications were complete I’d send out the [rest of] the information.

With injuries it was a little bit different, like I said. We could do a phone call and probably without exception, whatever unit that injury was from would make those phone calls and notify [families]. It was a little bit easier than knocking on the door and telling someone their loved one was killed, but difficult nonetheless. A lot of times the injured Soldiers would get an opportunity to call their family members and say, “Hey, I’ve been injured.” That usually made things a little better. “Yeah, I heard from so-and-so.” It’s still sort of a tough conversation for them but it makes it a little easier if it’s not the first time they’re hearing about it.

The more significant injuries where they’re evacuated to Landstuhl and things like that can be tough because I have very limited information. Generally the best information I’ve had is when I’ve talked to someone from forward who says, “Here’s what happened.” I can’t always tell them all that information. I have to read from the paperwork I get from the CAC about the incident and then I can to some degree fill them in with the details.

…There were some guys that couldn’t do it. We took them off the — I don’t want to say we had a list of guys who conducted notification — but if they couldn’t do it we didn’t want them to do it. That’s not something you cannot do well.

…The first notification I did was for the first incident that occurred. The brigade commander was coming back from a meeting and his personal security detachment (PSD) got hit. He had fortunately flown in the helicopter back to the forward operating base (FOB) but his PSD got hit and four Soldiers were killed. The notification I did was to a 19-year-old [spouse] and they had pretty recently been married.

It was difficult finding the address. In fact, the first address we went to we knocked on the door — supposedly they have no kids and I knock on the door and hear dogs barking and some mom yelling at kids. There I was standing there with the chaplain in uniform and it was an older lady, probably in her late 30s. I asked, “Are you so-and-so?” She kept asking, “What’s this about?” I asked her a couple of times and it was pretty apparent to me that it was not the right house.

We moved on. I called the CAC and they worked through trying to find — they got me another address so we went to that place. It was the right place. Her roommate was there and of course I couldn’t tell the roommate why I was there but it was fine, no guess work required there. We got to the time limit — you don’t notify families between 2200 and 0600. We kind of packed it up for the night and went home to start again in the morning.

This Soldier I was doing the notification for had a father who was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. He was up at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. They were notified by one of the O6s up there. In the morning I ended up going to her place of work which was tough because the CAC was talking to the business owner trying to explain that we needed a private room when we get there. He wasn’t very cooperative.

We went out there anyway and made the notification. She knew. It didn’t really make it any easier that initial, “We regret to inform you that your husband was killed in action.” What was really odd was that I walked through this — she worked at a bakery — I walked through there in dress greens with the chaplain. There were people in there, the store was open, and people were just oblivious to what was even occurring. There was no clue. That bothered me a little bit. They were going about their daily life.

…The second incident was 20 January 2007 and that was the attack on the Karbala compound. We had a platoon from the artillery battalion there with another platoon or company of Military Police (MPs) and they were working with the Iraqis. I’m not sure if it was confirmed but they believe it was an Iranian force that came up in their Suburbans and dressed in U.S. ACUs [uniforms]. They basically did a full-blown raid on the compound and killed five Soldiers, four of which were in our battalion.

There was a captain from a Guard unit who was Civil Affairs (CA) and LT Fritz, who was the platoon leader. They were actually captured and taken away. The Iraqis stopped them so they executed them on the spot and fled.

The notification I did was for one of the Soldiers in the compound; he was married. This goes back to the packets we talked about. I pulled her packet because she lived on post but my NCOs were telling me that they had thought she moved. I told one of my NCOs, “Go change into civilian clothes and drive over there. Just do a drive by.” He drives by and he calls me, “I don’t really see anything.” I said, “Alright. Swing back around, go up, and look in the windows.” He goes up and looks and there are a couple of packed boxes; no one is there. We thought maybe she was staying with another spouse on post. We had to be kind of sly about how we figured out where she was. I had NCOs call this other spouse and basically say we were updating our records and checking all the addresses to make sure and, “Oh by the way, is so-and-so staying with you?” “Yeah, she’s here.”

Right off the bat I’m thinking this isn’t good because I have two spouses from my battalion in the same house and I’m going to go knock on the door and they’re going to be like, “Who is CPT Fogleman here for.”

…The chaplain and I go knock on the door and the blinds kind of open up a little bit and you see — this is the spouse that lived there and all the blood went from her face very quickly.

She came to the door and we asked if Mrs. Milikan [sp.] was there and she was. She was definitely in denial because they were chatting online and the reports I got later were that they were chatting online when the raid occurred and communications were severed. The Criminal Investigation Division (CID) got her laptop to see if they could see anything. There was a big investigation on this incident to try and figure out what happened.

Q: She was actually talking to her husband online when the raid started?

A: Right.

Q: She didn’t want to believe that anything had happened.

A: Yeah. What I reported to CID was that I don’t believe she saw anything happen. I think she would have said something, and [also] the fact that she was in denial that he had been killed.

…What we would do was send a senior leader to funerals to represent the unit so we’d send guys all over to wherever funerals were occurring. [Since he was] a lieutenant and I was a captain at the time I went to be with his family and go through the whole process. This was up in northern Nebraska and the honor guard came from here at Fort Leavenworth. It was good I was there. They came with a NCO and Soldiers to do the 21-gun salute and all that. It was good because I got to make them run their drill and rehearse them. They were good but I did make a few corrections here and there. That was good. That was definitely something to sustain and I hope we’re still doing it today; sending senior leaders out to funerals. I know the family really appreciates it. I still stay in touch with them today.

Q: Do you?

A: I do. I actually drove up there over Veteran’s Day to go through the Veteran’s Day parade with them. That was pretty neat.

Q: It sounds as if you’ve done your best to take one of the hardest duties in your job and turn it into as good of a thing as it possibly could be. I don’t know if that’s anything you can necessarily be trained on.

A: No, and I think it becomes apparent pretty quickly if you have what it takes to do it. The third notification — and it doesn’t get any easier the more you do — this was — I don’t want to say anyone was harder [than another] but this one was difficult.

When the unit went to the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) before deployment, we got a Soldier in who was in his mid to late 30s. He owned his own business but wanted to serve his country. His hooch got hit by a rocket. I got a call from the battalion commander that this NCO had been killed.

We go to the CAC, meet the chaplain, and go to the residence — an off-post residence, actually in the neighborhood I lived in. We went to the door and no one answered. We leave and come back an hour later to try again; this was probably about 1800 or 1900. No one answered. I noticed a car had a lot of dust on the windshield and it looked like it hadn’t been driven in a while.  I looked through the glass and noticed that mail had piled up in the entryway. They were in a duplex so I knocked on the next door neighbor’s door to ask them if they had seen this family. They said they thought they were out of town.

Immediately I was frustrated that I didn’t know that; they were out of town and we hadn’t captured that or notified us. At this point I wasn’t sure where this family was. I went back to the office and tried to do some backtracking to try and figure it out. I knew that the family was from — at least her side — Alabama so I thought maybe they had gone there on vacation but I couldn’t confirm it.

We went back to the residence and it was probably about 2100 at this point. As we pull up I can see that the front door was open. I walk to the door with the chaplain and see suitcases in the entryway. It appears they had just gotten back from a trip. We go to the door and one of his teenage sons [pause] comes to the door. We conduct the notification, and it was tough because he had two teenagers. [Pause]

Q: Nothing really prepared you for that, did it?

A: No. [Pause] I asked if they wanted the FRG to come over to be with them and in this instance they did. The battalion commander’s wife and the battalion chaplain’s wife came over to be with her. I was in the backyard with the boys playing catch football. I told them that — this Soldier had been burned pretty badly because of the rocket and I told his boys that they’d have a tough decision to make at the funeral because I know they’d want to see him but sometimes really bad things happen in combat. They might want to remember him how they did the last time they saw him.

Q: How old were his boys?

A: They were 14 and soon to be 17. [Pause] Those were my three notifications.

Q: Would it be fair to say that this was the toughest job you’ve had in the Army?

A: By far, yes.