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Bearing bad news

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Their job is delivering the most awful news any military family can ever receive: that their loved one has been killed in the line of duty.

Thousands of off-duty and retired military personnel throughout the country serve as casualty notification officers who can be summoned day or night to bear the news. Deryline Watts is the casualty assistance officer for region 6, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Her office coordinates everything from body transport and mortuary services to organizing military funerals.

Watts says it has only been since Vietnam that military systematically notified NOKs (next of kin) via uniformed personnel. Prior to that the news was delivered via telegram. These days the Army attempts to make their notification within four hours of receiving word from its central Arlington, Va. office.

In a Fort Carson classroom last month, she instructed 16 sergeants and captains about the ins and outs of casualty assistance.

"You will never hear one of us say, 'We hate to bother you but could you ...' It will be more like, 'We need a notification officer and we need you right now,'" Watts tells her class. "If we get word at two in the morning, what we're going to do is call you, tell you to come in, get your handbook, and give you a little scenario of what you have tell them and who it is you have to notify. At that point, if it's a small farm community out in the southeast, you will go home, get on your class A [uniform] and start for the area."

While there is a script for notification officers to follow, Watts said such statements are often rendered irrelevant. "People see the uniforms and they know."

-- story by John Dicker

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