I lost my first two Soldiers in combat on April 11th, 2004. It was Easter Sunday and I remember it like it was yesterday. My men, Air Cavalrymen, were responding to support a convoy that came under attack heading from Baghdad International Airport out to Fallujah, Iraq. They saved many lives on the ground and in the process were shot down by an enemy surface-to-air missile. After the initial crisis management steps, downed aircraft battle drill and pain, I wrote these four steps on my board to remind me to do what’s right:
– Take Care of the Living Family
– Properly Remember and Honor the Dead
– Determine the Critical Lessons Learned
– Continue the Mission
I have had to write those steps on my boards several times over four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The way the military notifies family members– next-of-kin as they are referred to in our channels–of a lost loved one is critical. The notification has to be timely. It has to be compassionate. It has to be factual and not speculative. It has to be sincere. Senior leaders are responsible for making sure this no fail mission is done right. Our families, who sacrifice so much for this country, deserve that we do this sacred, heart-breaking delivery absolutely correctly. That means rehearsals and the right mix of religious personnel, leadership, and casualty assistance who do the notification.
Immediately after my first two families were notified, my wife went to their houses to provide support. I called from Iraq and talked to the wives that very night while my wife was in their home. Of course those initial contacts were followed up with condolence letters, memorial services, and constant support over the years. This is absolutely appropriate for the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation!
As a general officer in senior positions in the Obama administration, I witnessed the President/Commander-in-Chief and the Secretary of Defense and the uniformed senior military leadership exhibit the kind of compassionate, empathetic “Leader’s Heart” our families deserve during the tough time of a loss. I am certain the current military chain of command did right by the families of the loved ones lost recently in Niger; they are trained to do so. After all, Secretary Jim Mattis is a Soldiers’, Soldier; a Marines’, Marine. I would be surprised if the White House Chief of Staff, General (retired) John Kelly, who lost his son and other Marines in combat, did not make sure the White House and our current Commander-in-Chief did right by these families as well. I’m hoping the President’s off-the-cuff remarks and controversy over what was said on a phone call to a grieving wife under-represented how his team responded, maybe on his behalf. Knowing the family will be taken care of is a peace that allows this all-volunteer force to continue to serve. It’s the first step. We must write it on a board and remember to do the right thing.
I also hope those advising the President can help him know that rather than focus on which president did what before him, the new Commander-in-Chief must prioritize keeping Soldiers and Civilians alike out of harm’s way with diplomacy and inspired leadership. Perhaps that needs to be written on a board as well.