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Do Families of the Fallen Deserve to Be Notified First?

When U.S. service members are killed two things traditionally happen right away.

First, officials publicly announce that there has been a death or deaths, giving no details other than that those killed were U.S. troops, the troops' general location and sometimes their service affiliation. Simultaneously, military officials work to notify in person the families of the fallen, a task that can sometimes take several days. Only after those notifications are done are other specifics publicly released, including the names of the fallen, their units and how they were killed. 

But the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, has put a halt to that policy for deaths that occur in his area of control.

Instead of allowing an initial release of news that a U.S. service member has been killed, he allows nothing to be publicized until the family notifications are complete. Only then is news of the death shared with the public.

His reason? Respect. 

"It's a balance we're trying to strike between trying to provide all the support we can to families, while also informing the public," Capt. Bill Salvin, a spokesman for operations in Afghanistan, told Reuters

Nicholson's policy puts him at odds with the rest of the Pentagon, which continues to use the old system, giving basic details right away. An ABC report characterized the decision to delay information as "giving the public less information and transparency into an Afghanistan conflict that has raged for 16 years and resulted in thousands of American deaths and injuries."

At the time of his change, which was initially made earlier this summer, officials said that Nicholson was concerned that with so few troops now in Afghanistan it is increasingly easy for families to guess who has been killed before notifications are made, according to ABC's report. 

As a military family member who has sat wondering "is it us?" while waiting for that terrible knock, I know how awful those hours can be between "someone was killed" and knowing just who. During my husband's 2009 deployment over 20 families received those notifications in just four short months.

But would eliminating that first initial confirmation had made a big difference? 

In my experience, we didn't need officials in Afghanistan to release basic information to know something was wrong.

The comms blackouts, the first sign that something was not right, did that for us. Husbands who called regularly were suddenly silent, emails stopped coming, and you just knew that it had happened again. So you sat waiting, afraid to leave the house, afraid to make it harder for the notification team to find you.

You sent text messages to your unit friends just to test the waters in their homes without ever asking the real question. "Hey -- everything OK there?" When they replied "yes" you could breathe again because so far it was not them and it was not you.

But you knew it was somebody. 

And then the official word would come through the chain of command. Yes, another soldier or soldiers had been killed. Yes, they had left behind parents, wives and kids. Yes, another memorial service would soon be scheduled at the chapel on base. Yes, the death toll continued to rise. 

Given the realities of social media and how easy it is to guess bad news is coming, it's hard to see how cutting out that little bit of extra confirmation for just a few more days may really make a difference.

But at the same time, it's hard to see how eliminating it can really hurt, either. And don't the families of the fallen deserve every last iota of respect for their loss that we scrounge up?

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