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NEXT OF KIN NOTIFICATION

The U.S. military's system of notifying families of the death of a relative ran headlong into a new world of instant media communication during the war in Iraq (news - web sites).

Even though the military's use of e-mail, faxes and satellite telephones made its process of identifying casualties and notifying the families and public faster than in previous wars, its system sometimes struggled to keep up with TV reports from the battlefield.

For the first time, reporters with troops brought live pictures of combat into America's living rooms. Reporters sometimes knew the names of casualties but withheld them. The result for some families was that, after the surreal experience of watching a battle, they feared their loved one was dead, hurt, captured or missing before military officials confirmed or assuaged their fears.

Jennifer Veale-Diaz, watching the evening news April 2 in Savannah, Georgia, heard a report that an Army Black Hawk helicopter had crashed in Iraq, killing six soldiers. She surmised that the unit of her husband, Scott, could be involved. After a sleepless night, she and other pilots' wives besieged battalion headquarters at Hunter Army Air Field with telephoned requests for the names of those killed.

The Army completed its painstaking process of sending uniformed teams to notify the next of kin of the dead in less than 24 hours. Veale-Diaz was relieved that the gray Army van had not stopped at her home, but she remained shaken by the uncertainty of the TV report. A 24-hour wait may seem reasonable to outsiders, she says, but ''because we hear about it instantly, nearly, there's an expectation that the notification process would follow shortly thereafter. Our predecessors didn't have to go through this because they wouldn't have known about the crash.''

The eerie new reality of families suspecting bad news from live broadcasts raised challenges for the military's requirement that notice be delivered in person, by military personnel in dress uniform who recite a speech conveying official regrets. The process could move faster if messengers didn't travel to families' homes. But the Defense Department defends its system as the most humane way to treat family members and to honor servicemembers' wishes that certain family members be told before the name is made public.

Military officials chafe under what they call unrealistic expectations that they can match TV's speed. ''Everybody expects in the modern age that they are going to get information instantaneously,'' Marine Corps spokesman Brian Driver says. Forced to chase TV, the military says it worked with unprecedented speed to tell families and then release the names of the servicemembers to the public. In many cases, the Pentagon almost matched TV's immediacy.

Through Thursday, the Pentagon had identified 126 servicemembers killed, one missing and seven captured who were later returned to U.S. forces. Of the 134 names, 44 were announced to the news media within a day after a battlefield casualty. An additional 26 were made public within two days. The longest took 17 days.

Under an agreement with the Pentagon, reporters could go public after 72 hours with the names of casualties they learned on the spot. Facing that prospect, military officials set a goal of notifying relatives within 24 hours, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense John Molino says. When a casualty occurred, field commanders alerted the services' casualty branches at the Pentagon. The branches dispatched teams from regional offices with the goal being to visit families within eight hours. ''We do everything possible to make sure that families don't find out through the news media,'' Army spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis says.

Nearly 75% of the time, the Pentagon notified the next of kin and released a servicemember's name before the ''72-hour rule'' freed reporters to make it public. In the 25% of the cases in which the family wasn't notified after 72 hours, news organizations almost always refrained from publishing the name. Delays ranged from five to 17 days. Some were attributable to the ''fog of war;'' others to trouble in locating relatives.

At least one family got important -- and welcome -- news from journalists on two occasions before the Pentagon confirmed it. The military told the parents of Army Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young, 26, of Lithia Springs, Georgia, on March 24 that his Apache helicopter was missing. Later that day, they learned their son was alive and a prisoner of war when a CNN crew privately showed them a videotape that the Iraqis had taken of him and had broadcast. The Pentagon did not confirm for the family that he was a POW until the next evening. Nineteen days later, on Sunday morning, his parents learned from CNN that he was alive when they saw him and six other freed POWs. Pentagon notification came a short time later.

The notification process appeared to falter in some cases:

Battlefield confusion and unexplained snafus could prompt delays in notification, sometimes with outdated information. Meanwhile, reporters in the field knew who was missing or had died but were bound by the 72-hour rule not to tell.

On March 25, for instance, a Marine tank and its four-man crew vanished during a nighttime combat maneuver. The tank's absence wasn't noticed for several hours. When it was, USA TODAY reporter Elliot Blair Smith, traveling with the battalion, learned the tank was missing. But word didn't reach division headquarters for 18 hours. A sandstorm delayed a search. On March 28, Navy divers found the tank submerged in the Euphrates River and recovered four bodies. But that day, military officials told families only that the men were missing. A short time later, Marines from the unit telephoned some of the men's relatives to convey word of their deaths. The Defense Department didn't tell the public until March 30 that anyone was missing. When it did, it said only three were missing. The next day, the three were listed as killed in action. The military did not tell the public about the fourth dead Marine until April 1, the day that Smith recounted the tragedy in USA TODAY. He had known the lost Marines' names for nearly a week.

At times, family members made the names of their lost loved ones public by telling the news media before the military could notify the rest of the next of kin.

When eight Marines were unaccounted for in combat March 23 near Nasiriyah, the military notified most of their families in three days that they were missing. The wife and father of Sergeant Brendon Reiss, 23, of Casper, Wyoming, were among those informed. They told reporters. But the Pentagon didn't release Reiss' name until 17 days after the incident. Marine officials said it took that long to complete ''all next-of-kin notifications.'' The Pentagon announced Saturday that Reiss was killed in action.

The families of journalists who died learned of deaths more quickly than did families of servicemembers who were killed.

An Army Humvee plunged into a canal April 3, killing Michael Kelly of The Atlantic Monthly and Staff Sergeant Wilbert Davis, 40, of Hinesville, Georgia. Within hours, Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, called Kelly's wife, Madelyn. The Pentagon didn't release Davis' name until April 7, although editors had been told April 6 that his family had been notified. Some newspapers, including USA TODAY, ran Davis' name in April 7 editions, based on accounts from journalists in Iraq.

When NBC News correspondent David Bloom died April 5 from a blood clot, network producers on the scene informed their New York headquarters at once. Network officials broke the news to Bloom's family shortly before announcing it on the Today show.

The military has made big advances in notifying families. During World War II, it could take weeks for U.S. officials to get word of a death on a remote Pacific island. And then families were notified by telegram.

During the Vietnam War, the military began notifying families in person. But it usually took several days, and sometimes weeks. Typewritten casualty reports meandered through official channels. Hit with as many as 400 battle deaths a week, the bureaucracy sometimes was overwhelmed.

In the war in Iraq, Driver says, ''we have been meeting our goal of notifying next of kin within eight hours of receiving a casualty report from the field in most cases. That's a lot better than the two or three weeks it used to take.''

Some delays are inevitable. In the field, identities are checked and rechecked. ''We do not ever want to make the mistake where we knock on a door and deliver information that -- somebody is alive and well, and we tell their family that they've been killed,'' Molino says.

In peacetime, only the ''primary'' next of kin designated by a servicemember get told of a death or injury. Usually, that is the spouse or parents. In war, the Defense Department expands notification to a ''secondary'' list that may include grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles -- even friends or lawyers. ''There may be up to eight or nine people,'' Kanellis says.

Locating and informing everyone can take days. A servicemember may have listed his wife as living near the military base, but ''maybe the spouse went to her mother's house,'' Molino says. ''Parents may have divorced,'' Driver says. ''People go on vacation. People move.''

Clarke says the Pentagon's performance in releasing names to the news media ''will never be as fast as some people like. It will never be as complete as some people will like.'' Identifying casualties ''is based to a huge extent on the dignity and respect with which we want to treat these issues,'' she says. ''Next-of-kin notification is incredibly important to us, and we'll take the time to do it right.''

Posted: 17 April 2003