12 November 2009


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 13 November 2009

First, a follow-up to last week's Commentary, HEROES: "BRAVO!"--ZEROES: "HAVE A NICE DAY."

Thursday morning I received an email from a long-time friend and retired Marine that included an email string and a photograph (posted to the left) of a fraud--a zero. Oddly enough, shortly after reading his email I retrieved the morning paper and on the front page below the fold of 'The Desert Sun' (Palms Springs, CA) was the same photograph and an accompanying article titled, "Valley man accused in medal scandal." Steven Douglas Burton, 39, of Palms Springs (Coachella Valley)--never having served in the military--was (and has for some time) masquerading as a Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant and war hero. Among other decorations, Burton, wearing the Dress Blue uniform, was sporting the Navy Cross, Legion of Merit, Navy & Marine Corps Medal, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. An alert military fraud hunter in Colorado and a former High School classmate of Burton's on active duty in another branch of the military reported their suspicions of fraud. Burton is now facing a misdemeanor charge of violating federal law--unauthorized wearing of military medals (includes real medals or "colorable imitations"). If convicted, he could find himself behind bars in a federal prison for up to a year. Good. But it's not enough for such despicable conduct. "Have a nice day, Mr. Burton."

And, on a lighter note, "Congrats" to Stephanie, "acoloneloftruth" follower/reader in Pennsylvania, for being first to respond to last week's Commentary closing note and picking up the gratuitous numbered, signed, and inscribed copy of "MAKING MARINES." "Bravo, Stephanie!"

Now to today's Commentary...

Within in mere hours of Major Nidal Malik Hasan's horrific attack on fellow Soldiers last week in the Soldier Readiness Center aboard Fort Hood, Texas, a dozen Army officers (one for each soldier KIA--after all, we are, despite what the Administration says, in a Global War on Terror--whether the terrorist is foreign or domestic) across the country, were being assigned Casualty Assistance Calls Officer--or CACO (pronounced: KAY KO)--duty. In short, they (typically accompanied by another officer, Staff Non-Commissioned Officer or Chaplain) would soon knock on doors and personally deliver the news that a family member was among the dead. Tough duty. The slain Soldiers--male and female--ranged in age from 19 to 56 and held ranks from Private First Class to lieutenant colonel. One of the young Soldiers was pregnant. In short, they were from ten different states coast to coast and, though a small cohort, a representative sampling of America's diversity. One civilian was also killed. At least 30 others--military and civilian--were wounded.

As families of Soldiers, particularly those aware their Soldier was at Fort Hood for pre or post-deployment processing, anxiously awaited news, CACOs were collecting and confirming next-of-kin names and addresses, reviewing directions and studying maps, and preparing a dress uniform to visit homes and deliver terrible news--the worst possible. You better know CACOs had their hands full. Not only delivering bad news but not having any answers for stunned and grieving families left wondering how in the hell this could have happened aboard a stateside military base--theirs an excellent question.

Wouldn't we all like to believe force protection policies and procedures, regardless of where large gatherings of military personnel happen to be, are under review to implement strengthened protective postures post haste. It's now crystal clear our global, non-linear fight includes serious threats "inside the wire." No longer can it be taken for granted there is safety and security aboard military posts, bases, camps, and stations. Major Hasan won't be the last to terrorize from within. In fact, he just may have emboldened others to follow his lead. On guard.

Though not germane to today's Commentary, investigations will get to the bottom of what happened and why. At least they had better. The terrorist major, labeled the "shooter" when believed dead and now a "suspect" (though overwhelming evidence, he is innocent until proven guilty)--will be held accountable. It's too bad he is not dead. True justice will leave him wishing he had been killed.

Knowing Major Hasan's animosity toward the United States--him repeatedly making public statements contrary to his Oath of Office and other overt signs, a logical thinking person can only wonder why he was not long ago confronted, disciplined, perhaps punished, expeditiously and unceremoniously separated from the Army, and placed on government terrorists watch lists? There are seniors--colonels and generals--in the major's chain of command--past and present--that have some explaining (serious explaining) to do. Before the dust settles they may be wishing they too were dead.

Military officers--though some like to play "politics"--are not politicians. So, political correctness behind their complacency and turning a blind eye because the wacko major was a Muslim is not going to fly as a "defense"--any explanation along those lines is unconscionable and, at a minimum, constitutes dereliction of duty. An officer, rank notwithstanding, unwilling to do what is right does not deserve the privilege of a commission. As for the colonels and generals--no excuses. None. Heads should roll and careers end over this one, and double as a clear message to all others--lead or hang up the uniform!

And, in the short term and long run, our fight against radical Islam will be bolstered when President Obama stiffens his upper lip, adds the word terrorism to his lexicon, and assumes a more vocal and aggressive posture toward extremists--regardless of religion. That is, serve notice--threaten and/or attack the United States (or our friends), Americans (anywhere in the world), or disrupt--even if ever so slightly--our way of life and there is going to be hell to pay. Then, without a single word of warning, do it. Enemies understand strength, power, and resolve. Life is tough. The United States bears no responsibility to make the survival of our enemies a fair fight.

Speculation as to what happens next with the Fort Hood tragedy is not appropriate. Time will tell. We shall see. Today' s focus is on the CACO.

For those reading not familiar with military protocol in the event of a death, the military always makes formal notification through the presence of an officer--who not only personally delivers the news but serves as liaison between the family and the service while tending to funeral arrangements and settling sundry administrative matters. It is a simple matter of the military taking care of its own. Such notification is a long-standing tradition and is not only the right but the honorable way to break devastating news and assist a dazed, grieving, and coping family.

For the Army CACOs handling the deaths at Fort Hood, and those from all branches who are all too often delivering the news of death these days, not much has changed in decades and decades and decades.

So, a short story for a bit of insight on the duty of a CACO...

A Navy lieutenant--in Service Dress Blues, and a Marine captain--in the Service "A" uniform boarded a white, unmarked government van parked behind their unit and headed for Tupelo, Mississippi--coincidentally, the hometown of Elvis Presley; who once wore an Army uniform.

Their trip was not to drop by the Presley homestead and pay homage to the hip-shaking King of Rock & Roll. No, the naval officers were on duty. The lieutenant had been assigned as a CACO. The captain accompanied. They were on a mission to notify next-of-kin of the death of an active duty service member. In this case, a Sailor--a young petty officer--stationed in Florida.

With the name of the next-of-kin, an address on the outskirts of Tupelo, and a map in hand the duo set out from Oxford for the hour or so trip east on state highway 6. They knew nothing about the deceased Sailor and only that they would be making notification to his mother; a single parent.

The early afternoon trip to Tupelo was uneventful. Since this was the first casualty call for the lieutenant, the two discussed precisely what would be said to the Sailor's mother and talked through possible scenarios. Delivering unexpected, emotional news to family is not easy and initial reactions are unpredictable so preparedness is important as is professionalism while being compassionate and helpful. There is no room for error.

Arriving in the Tupelo area there was no problem finding the road of the deceased Sailor's mother. But after making several passes along the lightly traveled two-lane road they had no success locating the address. There were no like numbered homes or mail boxes. The address simply did not exist. As an aside, the military services make every effort to ensure a service member's Record of Emergency Data is correct. Still, it is not uncommon for there to be erroneous, out-of-date, or missing information (e.g. a lack of detailed directions to the next-of-kin home). In this case, a point the CACO would include in his After-Action report--the directions were not specific.

Though houses along the roadway were sparse, the officers concluded someone would know "Mrs. Jones" (an alias for the story). During another slow pass looking for the address the officers came upon a group of children walking home from school.

Stopping the van, the Marine exited the vehicle, introduced himself and asked the children if they knew Mrs. Jones and where she might live. The children did know her and said she lived down the road less than 1/2 mile away. Told they were not able to find her house, the children said she does not live in a house...she lives in the old school bus but she is at work and will not be home until after 4:00pm. The Marine thanked the children and the mission continued.

Exactly as the children described, within a half mile the officers came upon a 1950s vintage public school bus. It had definitely seen better days. They had noticed the bus on previous passes but assumed it was abandoned. It was shabby--weather-beaten, clearly not in running condition for a long, long time, and parked about 25 yards off the road near a small group of trees. Since it was only half past 3:00 a stop at a nearby cafe for a cup of coffee was in order.

About 20 minutes past 4:00 the officers pulled into the dirt drive and parked about 10 yards from the bus. The door opened and a petite woman appeared. She paused. As the officers exited the van, and before taking a step, the woman began to hesitantly approach--she was unsteady and there was a look of confusion on her face and she kept loudly repeating, "NO. NO. NO."

The officers approached and asked for a quiet place to speak and escorted the woman toward her home--the school bus. An outhouse was set back about 10 yards from the bus. The only water source in sight was a spigot in the ground toward the front of the bus. There was no sign of electricity. Boarding the bus, the driver's seat and steering wheel had been removed and replaced with a small table and a couple of chairs. The contents were humble but neat. On a ledge nearby was a framed official Navy photo of her son--a good looking young man--in his Crackerjack uniform. There was a small U.S. flag, a few Navy trinkets, and personal mail (perhaps letters from her son) around the photo. Mom was obviously proud of her son.

She was understandably distraught and crying when told her son was dead. She wanted to know why and how. Regaining a bit of composure she asked for details. The officers could offer nothing other than he died suddenly (though they were informed before the trip it appeared he had committed suicide they were not permitted to share that information until the investigation was complete).

The officers assured Mrs. Jones the lieutenant would be her point of contact from this moment forward. He would be available to assist her however necessary with return of her son's remains, funeral arrangements, and closing out all of his military affairs. Mrs. Jones thanked the officers as they offered final condolences and excused themselves to return to Oxford--duty done; at least for the time being. Their trip home seemed much longer.

If any good came from the senseless death, Mrs. Jones was the sole beneficiary of her son's life insurance. Money that would go a long way toward improving her impoverished living conditions. A small--very small--consolation for losing her only child.

Next-of-kin notification is sobering duty. It does not matter if the death happened: while in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan or some other God-forsaken hell hole; from a roadside bomb or at the hands of a domestic terrorist aboard Fort Hood, Texas; during training; as the result of a motor vehicle accident while on liberty or leave; due to some sort of bizarre recreational accident; or at one's own hand--suicide. A death is a death--and, when unexpected, it is especially upsetting news for family. And it does not matter if family claims a dilapidated school bus or a mansion on a sprawling estate as home. Lives matter. Things do not. And life goes on.

Post Script
I was the captain who accompanied the CACO, LT John Knaff, U. S. Navy. We were assigned to the Naval ROTC Unit, University of Mississippi. I will never forget first eye contact with the mother--an awkward instant after seeing us she realized why we were there--the look of extreme anguish and raw pain and grief on her face, and her body struggling to remain erect. It was gut-wrenching. Though 21 years ago, her face as clear as if seeing her moments ago. I don't know if her living conditions improved. I hope so. God, I hope so. As I recall, the investigation concluded the young Sailor did commit suicide. As for the Fort Hood tragedy, the CACOs will not forget the experience. They will have their own memories and stories. Count on it.


Stephanie said...

A very emotionally charged and moving Commentary--from the sad and senseless attack at Ft. Hood to the daunting and sobering duty of the CACO'S.

A most sincere thanks, Andy! I am thrilled to be the first to respond..and honored to receive..my copy of "MAKING MARINES". I am sure to enjoy many hours of reading the inspirational insight to a Marine.

Tom Hickinbotham said...

Andy - Upon reporting into Marine Barracks, NAS Jacksonville in March 1970, I was assigned CACO duties for Marine KIA's in VN from SE Georgia and NE Florida. Not an experience I would wish on anyone. Tring to find a family that lived in the fringes of the Okeefenokee Swamp was, itself, a challenge, much less the notification of NOK for a closed-casket funeral.