Somber duty carried out with respect for all involved
By ANN S. KIM, Staff Writer

Monday, January 8, 2007

Nancy Kelly was at a military wives support group meeting when talk turned to the fear that their husbands would not come home. Kelly was among those who explained what they could expect in that worst possible scenario.

When she returned to her home in Richmond, she changed into her pajamas and put on her husband's robe. She was about to draw the drapes when she saw a military vehicle pulling into her driveway. The nightmare she had described earlier in the day was unfolding before her eyes.

"I thought, 'This cannot be happening to me,' " she said.

A soldier from the Maine Army National Guard told her the news: Her husband was dead. Staff Sgt. Dale James Kelly Jr., 48, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on May 6. He was assigned to Company B, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment.

Such heartbreaking scenes unfold with each death of a service member, and are becoming more common as the number of war deaths mounts. On New Year's Eve, the United States marked the 3,000 military death in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. The count includes 21 military personnel with Maine ties. Six other servicemen with connections to Maine have died since Sept. 11, 2001.

Since 1966, the military has been required to make every effort to have a member in service dress uniform notify the next of kin in person when someone is killed. The branches have their own conventions and slightly different names for the job, but for all it is a somber duty designed to convey respect and honor for the deceased and their families.

It is the worst duty aside from combat, said Maj. Bennett Walsh, commanding officer of the U.S. Marine Corps Inspector-Instructor Office in Topsham. Within seconds, notification officers render spouses into widows or widowers or confirm to parents that their child has died.

Walsh has had to utter the words to a Marine's next-of-kin once before. Wearing the olive uniform reserved for certain formal occasions, he said a quick prayer, told himself to be strong and approached the home.

It was a gut-wrenching experience he hopes never to repeat. But he is prepared to perform the duty again, he said, because every Marine is a brother or sister to him.

"It's our most important duty," Walsh said. "When this happens, there's nothing more important than notifying the family, offering them comfort and trying to help them through this terrible time."

Walsh and the other military personnel interviewed for this article would not disclose information about the families with whom they had worked.

The mission of Walsh's office is to train reservists for combat, but it is also the only one in Maine that performs casualty assistance for the Marines.

The word that one of their own has fallen can come at any hour. When it does, everyone in Walsh's office of about 10 Marines converges. Duties are divvied up and a team is dispatched to the next-of-kin's home, with one person assigned the task of delivering the news.

There are commonalities across the branches of military. All notification members receive training for the duty, and the rank of the officer matters -- it must be at least equal to that of the deceased.

In the Marines, the person notifying the relative is the same person who helps the family with funeral arrangements, filing for benefits and anything else that is needed after the notification.

For the Maine National Guard, the notification officer steps aside for another person assigned to the family. The Maine National Guard generally sends a chaplain with the notification officer and would never send that person alone.

For Peggy Dostie of Somerville, the experience was such a shock that it's difficult to recall any details. Her son, Spc. Thomas John Dostie, a 20-year-old mechanic with the Maine Army National Guard's 133rd Engineer Battalion, died in a suicide bombing in Iraq on Dec. 21, 2004.

She cannot recall the name or the face of the soldier who told her Tommy was dead.

"That whole night is still a blur," she said.

In a time of fast-flowing information, notification officers face the challenge of making sure that they, and no other source, are the bearers of the news.

If no one is at home, the officer may simply have to wait. If no one shows up, the officer might have to determine their whereabouts, said Bruce Ross, a regional coordinator of casualty assistance calls at Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Relatives being tracked down at Disney World or elsewhere far away from home.

In cases where two relatives are listed as next-of-kin, officers have to coordinate by phone so that one relative does not find out before the other.

At the home, if someone other than the next of kin opens the door, the notification officer cannot say the reason for the visit even though it's already clear.

"When you come to the door, you know it's the worst news," Walsh said.

Wanda Kilgore of Norway was about to take her younger son to the bus when she saw the car with government plates in her driveway. She went back into the house, already knowing why they were there.

"Then they knocked on the door and they had no smile on their face," Kilgore said.

Her older son, 22-year-old Sgt. Corey Dan of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, was killed March 13 in Baghdad.

Neither Kilgore nor Nancy Kelly remember much about the soldiers who notified them.

Nancy Kelly cannot remember the words uttered by the soldier. But as a veteran herself, she took in the significance of their dress uniforms, the way they called her ma'am and how they remained at attention even while seated.

"All of it is about respect and honor due to the fallen comrade," said Kelly, who was a staff sergeant in the Rhode Island Air National Guard, 143rd Tactical Airlift Group.

For the National Guard families, a connection is more likely with the officers who work with the families in the weeks and months after the notification.

Capt. Scott Lewis, Kilgore's casualty notification officer, took on tasks she could not handle herself after her son's death -- and performed them all intelligently and compassionately, she said. Her voice grew emotional as she recalled how he brought her son's headstone home.

"He did everything for me -- above and beyond," Kilgore said. "He has now turned into a friend."

Lewis, who is a training officer for the Maine Army National Guard's 240th Engineer Group, said the work was among his most rewarding experiences ever. Lewis, who did not identify Kilgore's family, said he has visited them with his wife and daughter, and remains in touch even though his duties with them are complete.

"You know if you go through something like that that's life-altering to a family, you'll get attached," he said.

First Lt. Earl Weigelt, a chaplain, has been involved in a number of notifications for the Maine Army National Guard to support the family and the person giving the news. The difficulty of the job is one reason that no one would ever be sent alone, he said.

Weigelt sometimes leads a prayer before he and the notification officer approach a home. And he is frequently praying silently during the visit for the family and the notification officer, for whom it is also an intense experience.

"If a person wanted to make themselves a robot and click themselves off emotionally, spiritually or however, they could do it. But that wouldn't honor the soldier of the family," he said. "If it's done right, it's got to involve your heart."

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: