Job of notifying kin doesn't get any easier, he says

January 25, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Master Sgt. Larry Rocha did not want to get out of the car when he pulled up at the home where he had to tell a woman her soldier husband was dead.

"You do not forget the first time you have to do it," Rocha says.

And, he says, it doesn't get any easier the second, third or any time after that.

"I'm not the sort of person who can go out the door and say that's that."

Rocha, 35, dark-haired and serious, is a non-commissioned officer in charge at the Fort Meade Casualty Assistance Command. He's been in the Army 17 years. He is one of the people ready to notify survivors of soldiers who may be killed in Operation Desert Storm.

"I remember driving up the driveway," he says. "That's when the butterflies started. I felt I couldn't move. But I knew it had to be done."

Rocha sits erect in his BDU's -- his battle dress utilities, the uniform of the day -- in a Fort Meade media office. His hands are clasped in his lap, occasionally folding and unfolding. The dead man had been a friend. He knew the wife.

"She was surprised to see me," Rocha says. "She had not heard anything. We made our greetings. I asked to come in. I said: Look, I have something to tell you.

"She knew it right away," he says. "A seriousness, basically, had come about."

He told her what happened. Her husband had been killed in an auto accident.

"She started crying," Rocha says. "The kids came in. They said, 'Mommy, what's going on? Why are you crying?' They actually became her consolation."

The chaplain who had come with Rocha said a few words. They called a neighbor over to help. They made sure she was all right. And they let her know a casualty-assistance officer would come the next day.

They stayed only a few minutes. The Army trains notification people to be brief. But it was a few minutes Rocha will never forget.

"I think I was professional, yet personal," he says. "I think my emotional stamina held up very well."

That's the basic scene that will be played out if soldiers die in Operation Desert Storm. The Army is expanding casualty-assistance programs and Rocha now teaches new notification and assistance personnel in the Fort Meade command. That includes Baltimore, the rest of Maryland except for Prince George's and Montgomery counties and parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The Army doesn't like to give exact numbers: "We don't like to scare people," a media person says. "We've got enough. We're ready to do the job. That's what the military is all about -- preparedness."

Notification personnel come from local reserve, National Guard or regular army units. And they mostly volunteer.

"I'm not going to go out and make somebody do it," Rocha says. "We've had people say, 'I can't do it. I don't have it inside me to tell someone that their loved one is deceased.' "

Rocha, in fact, begged off his first assignment as a notifier. But he's since done three, none during hostilities.

Preparation consists of a kind of common-sense compilation of dos and don'ts.

"The primary don't is: we don't call on the telephone," Rocha says. "All notifications are done in person.

"We don't call to see if they are at home. We don't leave notes. We don't talk over intercoms.

"We talk only to the next of kin. We confirm who they are. We say: I'm here on behalf of the secretary of the Army and express his deep regrets. Your son or daughter or husband has died as a result of . . ."

But the notifiers are told not to have a script.

"Don't have anything written in your hands you want to read," Rocha tells new notification people.

"You want to go in with compassion," he says. "Place yourself as if you are talking to one of your own family."

"If people are really in touch with their own feelings they can really do anything," he says. "It has to be done tactfully and in good taste. We don't want them to go out like they were robots.

"We want them to dig into their own instincts and feelings. That comes naturally. I can't teach people to come in contact with themselves.

"They just have to place themselves in that situation, as if they were telling their own mother of the death of their own brother or their own sister. We're looking for empathy."

Within 24 hours of the notification of a death, a casualty-assistance office will come to the home of the next of kin to help with funeral arrangements and in applying for all assistance and entitlements.

The Army will arrange for the funeral, pay for preparation of the remains, provide a casket and transportation to a funeral establishment. But there may additional funeral expenses which the survivor must pay.

The assistance counselor will provide help in getting Veterans Administration and Social Security benefits and whatever unspent pay or leave allowances the next of kin might be due.

The spouse or children, or sometimes parents, of a soldier who dies on active duty also receives a $3,000 "death gratuity."

The notifier is always of the rank or equivalent of the dead soldier, but at least staff sergeant or above. They wear the Class-A uniform, "dress greens."

"But," Sgt. Rocha cautions, "that doesn't mean because a person is approaching your house in a Class-A uniform that it is bad news."

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