Compassionate Disclosure

Good morning:

I did a 10 mile run this morning and I’m ready to tackle another day at our unparalleled Regency Nursing Centers!

The other day, I blogged about the topic of ‘coping with grief.’

At Regency Nursing and Post-acute Rehab Centers, we are extremely mindful of this important topic, since we cater not only to the physical wellbeing of our patients, but also to their emotional and physiological state.

I recently came across a fascinating interview by VICE with an Army “CNO.” I had no idea what a CNO stands for and was shocked to learn that it is a titular distinction for a dedicated ‘Casualty Notification Officer,’ whose sole purpose is to compassionately inform families of the loss of their loved one(s) in battle.

It takes an officer with a certain disposition to be tasked with such an important job and not everyone is cut out for it.

The CNO who was interviewed, is Captain Richard Siemion.

CNO, Captain Richard Siemion, US Army
CNO, Captain Richard Siemion, US Army

“There’s still a war going on,” Captain Richard Siemion began. “There are still people dying—not as many as before—but it’s still happening. And when it does, the Army sends somebody like me to break the news.”

Captain Siemion was recently honorably discharged but was one of several casualty notification officers serving in upstate New York. Whenever a soldier’s death was reported, the CNO on duty would have four hours to track down the deceased’s family and deliver some of the worst news they would ever hear.

CNOs have been the focus of some interest over the last decade of American war. In 2006, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News published a Pulitzer Prize–winning series about the Marines tasked with the same job as Captain Siemion, and in 2009 Woody Harrelson starred in the independent film The Messenger. He played a CNO.

A reporter recently sat down with the 31-year-old Siemion to talk about his first-hand experience telling families of
active-service soldiers that their loved one have died in action.

VICE: Did you volunteer for the job?

Captain Siemon: We call it being voluntold. I had just gotten back from my first tour in Afghanistan when my Battalion Commander sent me to the training course.

What did you learn there?

You learn that there’s no right way to tell someone that their loved one is not returning from war, but there are a lot of wrong ways to do it. If you look at history, the way they used to tell families about a death: You had telegrams, you had taxi drivers paid to ring doorbells, you had word of mouth. Through trial and error, the United States Army got it as close to right as they can. I was always the kind of leader who didn’t go 100 percent by the book, but in this case, I went right by the book, because there is a reason why they have it the way they do. Not much room for creativity.

What do you think they got right?

One thing is the idea that no job is more important than this job. So, if you’re in the middle of an important brief with a Colonel and you get called to give a notification, you say, “Gotta go.” Another thing is that you go in person. It shows the importance. Obviously you’re never going to see that individual again, or be their best friend, but if my brother died, I’d rather have it straight—face-to-face.

Did they teach you how to handle your own emotions?
My bosses were really understanding that it could be rough on me. I mean, everybody handles it differently. I was told about a guy who had to give multiple notifications and eventually took his own life on a train track. I think I handled it better than most people would given the same circumstance. I honestly really enjoyed it. There are so few things in the Army that give you instant gratification like that. It’s painful and awful, but you’re doing a service.

What’s the sequence of events for delivering a notification?

You get briefed, you get your dress blues ready, and you go over the paperwork. That’s when you realize how important paperwork is, because each soldier fills out a DD93 where they write their address. Sometimes the handwriting is real sloppy. It can be a little frustrating.

What was the hardest moment for you?

A lot of times they asked, “Did he suffer?” And I don’t lie. I said, “I don’t know.” I’m not going to say, “No, he didn’t suffer,” only to find out later that he was in agonizing pain for an hour and a half. I would say, “I’m sorry. I don’t really know the answer that question.” One person asked me, “Why? Why did this happen?” I said, “Honestly, I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to answer that question. Never. I could have 1,000 years, and I would never be able to answer that.”
Roc’s new book, And, was released last year.

You can find more on his website.

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