Fallen Soldiers: Death and the U.S. Military

Morten G Ender, Paul T Bartone, Thomas A Kolditz. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

This chapter examines how the U.S. Army responds to death and dying from multiple perspectives. We consider the U.S. Army as an organization with long experience with death and its programs and policies aimed at preparing for casualties and assisting survivors to adjust to death. We review demographics of death in the military; the social history of death in the U.S. Army and other services; military subcultural responses to death, including military protocol, rituals, and memorials in Army units; and community responses to death.

Most 20th-century war films skirted the grieving associated with death and dying. Recent military films have treated death and grief work as a more explicit feature of the film. Two examples are Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg et al. 1999) and We Were Soldiers (Davey, McEveety, and Wallace 2002). Early in Saving Private Ryan, after the World War II Normandy invasion scenes by allied forces, female typists methodically and diligently prepare death notifications from the War Department. The telegrams make their way to the next of kin of fallen soldiers. In Saving Private Ryan, the War Department takes the extra initiative to give a face-to-face personal notification to Mrs. Ryan, presumably at her home (there is no dialogue), informing her that three of her four sons have been killed. One will be coming home. In We Were Soldiers, a bright yellow taxicab and its driver clumsily deliver death notification telegrams directly to the homes of wives whose husbands are deployed with the 7th Calvary and killed in the first major battle of the Vietnam War in 1965. In the film, one of the wives says, “The Army wasn’t ready for this.” Today, the Army is exceptionally prepared to deal with death in its ranks. Fictional accounts represent a highly responsive organizational response to death in the ranks of the Army.

In this chapter, we focus on a number of social and behavioral aspects of death associated with the American soldier. Our chapter focuses on four areas: the demographics of death in the military, organizations and roles associated with death in the military, death and the Army unit, and community responses to death in the Army.

The Demographics of Death in the Military

Millions of people have died in war, and the supreme sacrifice of those in uniform has been a major consequence of American wars though our 200+ years history. Table 1 lists the total number of deaths for principal wars and selected U.S. military engagements. Over 1 million U.S. service members have died in military campaigns. More Americans died in the Civil War than any other war (combining the deaths from the North and South). When combining the deaths of World War I, World War II, and the conflicts in Korean and Vietnam, the 20th century is the deadliest century with the highest casualty rate for any century (Caplow and Hicks 2002). Yet since the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the number of U.S. deaths in the ranks has been relatively low compared with the previous 150 years. During the sample period, organizational responses to death in the ranks have broadened and deepened (Bartone and Ender 1994).

Today, the risk of death remains an occupational hazard for service personnel. Yet the probability of being killed on active duty is lower than ever. Less than 2% of military deaths between 1980 and 1999 were hostile deaths. Most military deaths today occur in peacetime, resulting from training accidents such as helicopter crashes, and during humanitarian and disaster relief efforts. Accidental deaths, the leading cause of death of service personnel, happen while service members are vacationing or driving into the office. Other causes of death, in addition to training accidents, include homicide, illness, suicide, and terrorist attacks. Some deaths of service personnel are undetermined.

Approximately 1,555 deaths of U.S. military active-duty personnel have occurred since 1980, with a total of 32,912 deaths occurring between 1980 and 1999 (Washington Headquarters Services 2002). Accidental deaths are the leading cause of death and represent more than half of all deaths for a given year. The second largest number of deaths per 100,000 military personnel result from illnesses, followed closely by self-inflicted deaths. Self-inflicted deaths, homicides, and pending/undetermined deaths account for the remaining and fewest per 100,000 deaths for the same period. All nonhostile military deaths have been on a slight decline for the past 22 years; however, the size of the military population has been steadily decreasing as well. Accidental deaths have been dramatically reduced since 1980, by just under half. Such numbers require close monitoring.

Military personnel deaths vary by service. The Army is the largest of the four services and has the highest number of deaths. The Marines have the fewest. However, the Marines often account for the largest number of deaths per 100,000, suffering 233.9 deaths per 100,000 in 1984 following the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1984. In their demographic analysis of 14 years of causes of death among U.S. military personnel, Helmkamp and Kennedy (1996) found that the young (17-24), male, white, lower-ranked enlisted Marines suffered the highest rates of accidental (unintentional deaths). The least likely to suffer an accidental death are over 35, non-black or white, female naval officers. For diseases, black, male, senior noncommissioned officers (NCOs) over 35 years of age in the Army had the highest rates. Young, female, non-black or exclusively white Marines have the lowest rate. For suicides, the numbers are distributed rather equally except for males and enlisted soldiers having higher rates. The lowest rates for suicide are female naval officers who are non-black or white. Finally, the highest homicide rates in the U.S. military between 1980 and 1993 are for young, black, female, junior enlisted Marines. The lowest rates of homicides are for older, non-black or white Air Force officers. Of special noteworthiness is the reverse trend for homicide and suicide rates among males and females (Helmkamp and Kennedy 1996). Suicide rates are higher for males than for females; however, homicide rates are higher for females than for males. This latter rate is also higher than for civilian females (Helmkamp and Kennedy 1996).

Military Casualty Affairs

The U.S. military has long considered the inevitable fact of soldiers being killed while serving in the military, and each service has responded with elaborate casualty assistance programs for active-duty military personnel, reservists, and veterans. One indicator is the extensive use of military jargon associated with the management of death and dying in the military. Acronyms and terms such as DG (death gratuity), KIA (killed in action), and PNOK (primary next of kin) attest to the degree of absorption of casualty affairs into Army life (see the appendix). Similarly, the U.S. Air Force maintains the Casualty Assistance Branch at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. The U.S. Navy maintains the Casualty Assistance Branch located in Millington, Tennessee. The Coast Guard Decedent Affairs Program provides benefits to survivors of active-duty members who die while on active duty, reserve members, military retired members, and their family members. Militaries around the world are likely to have a casualty ethos within their ranks, but little is published. Israel (Weiner 1990) and India (Parmar 2001) are exceptions. Most of the research concerning death and dying in the U.S. military has focused on the largest of the four services, the U.S. Army (Bartone 1996; Bartone and Ender 1994). In the remainder of this section, we describe the U.S. Army casualty affairs process in the context of types of Army casualty assistance workers and the post-Army assistance of not-for-profit organizations.

Army Casualty Assistance

The U.S. Army Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operations Center (CMAOC) is located in Alexandria, Virginia. The CMAOC is a subordinate division of the Adjutant General Directorate under the organizational command of the Total Army Personnel Command. The mission of the CMAOC is “to assist Army families in an emotionally stressful time of bereavement” (U.S. Army 2002). The CMAOC is the central agency responsible for planning and implementing institutional responses to death and serious illness in the U.S. Army.

The death areas managed by the CMAOC include casualty assistance, legal assistance, funeral honors, entitlements, benefits, insurance, POW/MIA, and identification of remains (U.S. Army 2002). The CMAOC has four divisions: (a) a Casualty Operations Division where casualty reporting of death and serious injury are reported and NOK notification are processed; (b) a Mortuary Affairs and Casualty Support division where the preparation, transportation, and disposition of remains and funeral honors, such as burial at Arlington National Cemetery, are managed; (c) a Repatriation and Family Division where matters associated with prisoners of war (POWs) and those missing in action (MIAs) are processed; and finally, (d) a Central Identification Laboratory located in Hawaii (CILHI) that administers the search, recovery, identification, and repatriation of ancient remains from all prior wars.

Army casualty assistance is coordinated through 37 subordinate Casualty Area Commands (CACs) around the world. The CACs manage all the local aspects of death of a service member in support of the soldier’s unit and his or her family (U.S. Army 2002). Duties of the CAC include (a) active involvement in obtaining and verifying casualty information; (b) identifying primary (PNOK) and secondary next of kin (SNOK); (c) appointing and training casualty notification officers (CNOs) and casualty assistance officers (CAOs) to the NOK; (d) coordinating chaplain support, public affairs, and health professional assistance; (e) managing the deceased service member’s personal effects; and (f) ensuring appropriate mortuary and funeral services. Army casualty assistance employs a range of active-duty service personnel to learn and implement these policies.

Organizations, Casualty Workers, and Death in the Military

Army Casualty Workers

In this section, we describe four types of Army casualty workers. These workers have demanding occupational roles that require direct immersion in the social situation of the death surrounding the soldier and his or her family. The four Army occupational roles include mortuary workers, notification NCOs, notification officers, and CAOs.

Mortuary Workers

Mortuary workers are under the guidance of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps (QM). QM is a 227-year-old branch of the U.S. Army that provides a range of logistical support to combat soldiers, from water purification to mortuary affairs. The Mortuary Affairs branch, formerly known as Graves Registration (GRREG), is based at the Quartermaster Center in Fort Lee, Virginia, and has a long history dating back to the early 1800s (Anders 2002). Responding to soldiers, civilians, and Army leadership regarding the treatment of the dead on the battlefield, the Army Mortuary Affairs branch gradually formalized into an active component of the Army both in war and during peacetime. A full Mortuary Affairs worker mission is traced to the U.S. Civil War, and this branch has participated in every major war and mass casualty incident in the U.S., including assisting Canadian officials after the 1985 crash of an airline in Gander, Newfoundland, carrying 248 U.S. soldiers returning from a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai; assistance after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995; and most recently, responding to the September 11, 2001 commercial airplane bombing of the Pentagon.

There have been significant research findings associated with the work of military mortuary workers. Research has linked the development of somatic symptoms to exposure of the dead, symptoms of intrusion and avoidance, anticipated stress, posttraumatic stress disorder, and mediators of stress, such as experience and gender and coping strategies (see McCarroll et al. 2002). Research has also uncovered stressors experienced by the significant others of mortuary workers (Fullerton et al. 1993).

Notification NCOs

Notification NCO is the term applied to noncommissioned officers working at the center of Army casualty work (Ender and Bartone 1991). Typically, they are male or female, with 5 to 15 years of military experience. They work at the Casualty Operations Center in Alexandria, Virginia, and rotate on 8-hour shifts—24 hours a day, 365 days a year—responding to Army deaths and serious injuries around the world. Through fax, e-mail, and telephonic communications, they manage detailed notes regarding a soldier’s death. Duties include coordinating all details regarding the death, making notification and follow-up telephone contact with family members of seriously ill soldiers, making death notification following serious injury, and making official notification of death in rare instances of premature death notification via mass media. Their work facilitates the follow-on casualty assistance response team of CNOs and CAOs.

We conducted an in-depth study of notification NCOs (N = 14), using a triangulated study approach employing passive participant observation, interviews, oral histories, and a questionnaire with both open- and closed-ended survey items (Ender and Bartone 1991). We concluded that notification NCO work is a human service-oriented duty with many deleterious effects similar to other human service-related work, including job stress and burnout (Ender and Bartone 1991). Sources of stress included a lack of specified training in death work, significant task responsibility, exposure to death and dying of fellow soldiers, shift work, and limited social supports. Coping mechanisms included a thoughtful hiring strategy to screen in the most qualified, on-the-job training opportunities instead of generic training, a flexible shift work system, a liberal time-off policy, informal social supports and teamwork, a strong commitment and sense of mission, and experience.

During times of war, the Casualty Operations Center receives augmentees to supplement in preparation for mass casualties. In 1990, in the months leading up to the Persian Gulf War, 80 people, mostly Army Reserves, prepared for notification duty (Bartone 1996). A host of pre-, during, and postwar tests for identifying stressors were administered. A number of negative psychological effects were self-reported, with support among coworkers, friends, and family and personality hardiness buffering the stressors (Bartone 1996).

Casualty Notification Officers

Both CNOs and CAOs are temporary roles occupied by senior-ranked noncommissioned officers (staff sergeant and higher) and more experienced officers (captains and higher). Both are selected by their military post installation commander to serve as the CNO or CAO because the post is closest to the deceased families’ NOK. The roster for CNO and CAO duty resides with specific work units at a particular post. Names at the top of this duty roster are selected for either CNO or CAO duty. Both CNO and CAO duty subordinate all other responsibilities. As noted in the first three sentences of the CNO handbook,

You are about to embark on what will be one of the most difficult duties you will be called upon to perform in your military career. You represent the Secretary of the Army [original bolded]. Your duty as a Casualty Notification Officer (CNO) has priority over all other duties. (Casualty Notification Guide 2002:1)

CNOs are expected to make formal, face-to-face notification to PNOK and SNOK within 4 hours after a notification of death. Within that time, the CNO is expected to become familiar with information about the casualty, the NOK, the incident surrounding the death, and emergency contact information; review four videos (i.e., Casualty Notification; Notifying Emotional Next of Kin; Notifying Hostile Next of Kin; and Survivor Notification and Assistance); and prepare to announce the death to NOK using one of four scripts: (a) general death cases, (b) missing status, (c) deaths resulting from friendly fire, or (d) deaths where positive identification is not complete. The general death script reads as follows:

The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deepest regret that your (relationship; son, Robert or husband, Edward; etc.) (died/was killed in action) in (country/state) on (date). (State the circumstances provided by the Casualty Area Command.) The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss. (Casualty Notification Guide 2002:3)

After the CNOs have provided the NOK with additional information, they are encouraged to leave as soon as possible but instructed to stay “as long as needed.” After departure, they are required to update the CAC about the situation, in detail. This information is passed on to the CAO.

CNO duty is short but highly intensive. CNOs working in support of the Persian Gulf War self-reported a handful of “primary stressors,” including guilt about delivering the news, feelings of powerlessness, and anticipated uncertainty about family reactions (summarized in Bartone 1996). Interestingly, CNO duration of exposure to families was not a significant correlate with psychological symptoms and ill health, yet attendance at a funerary event was (Bartone 1996). As one CNO reported,

While I was in the house I saw his [the casualty’s] photo … I had trouble sleeping … could I have done something else to make it less painful for her? I just kept going over it again in my mind. (Bartone 1996:332)

Casualty Assistance Officers

The U.S. Army’s CAOs follow the CNO into the home of the NOK of Army casualties. Again, CAOs are active-duty, reserve, or retired Army service members assigned to a bereaved family following the death, missing status, or captured status of a soldier (Bartone and Ender 1994; Ender and Bartone 1991). During World War II, family notification of a service member’s death came in the form of a telegram. As the Vietnam War progressed and American casualties increased, notification officers began to inform families of a soldier’s death with a personal visit. By the late 1960s, the Department of the Army coupled the CNO with a CAO (initially called a survivor assistance officer) who followed up the personal notification to provide both short- and long-term personal affairs assistance to the family of the deceased soldier. Since the Vietnam experience, CAOs have continually been assigned to represent the secretary of the Army for the deaths of all soldiers.

Like the CNO, CAOs are mandated by the military organization to take on the prescriptions of the CAO role and are obliged to be innovative within the context of a highly sensitive and emotional situation (Casualty Assistance Guide 2000). Their CAO checklist of responsibilities includes eight areas: (a) preparation for family contact, (b) initial contact with PNOK, (c) second visit with PNOK, (d) awaiting arrival of remains, (e) meeting the remains/escorts, (f) funeral requirements, (g) visits to the funeral, and (h) concluding the duty. Under these eight areas are 52 tasks requiring direct attention on part of the CAO (Casualty Assistance Guide 2000). CAOs appear to have no direct civilian counterpart (Ender and Hermsen 1996) and may serve the role only once or twice in a 20-year military career. The duty in this role supersedes all other duties and requires the officer’s full attention (Casualty Assistance Guide 2000). Official duty as a CAO can last for more than a year. Unofficial duties can last a lifetime. The Army CAO has a counterpart role in the sister services—in the Navy and Coast Guard and a uniformed counterpart in the Air Force. Similar to the CNO, CAO duty is temporary, performed in place of or in addition to normal military job requirements, and involves little or no training. In some cases, there is the potential for concomitant trauma for the CAO—he or she may personally know the deceased and the family.

In the aftermath of the Army’s 1985 Gander, Newfoundland, air disaster that killed 248 soldiers, CAOs have been the subject of a great deal of research. The Gander duty had a negative impact on the mental health of some CAOs (Bartone et al. 1989) and other casualty workers (Bartone 1996). A 1999 study supplemented the Gander group with CAOs having served in the aftermath of the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight #103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and a 1989 Army helicopter crash in the Arizona desert (Ender, Segal, and Stanley 1999). We found that both guidance and CAO behavior showed preoccupation with the instrumental demands associated with the duty and a suspending of the socioemotional demands. Implications for interventions for other occupations involving long-term and ephemeral bereavement work were offered (Ender et al. 1999).

During the Persian Gulf War, CAOs shared primary stressors with CNOs, including conflicts with families, personal identification with the deceased, grief, and exposure to human remains when inspection of caskets was desired by NOK (Bartone 1996). Unlike CNOs, extent of exposure, commingling duration, and contact for CAOs showed a positive relation to symptoms and health outcomes. In his summary of the findings of both CNOs and CAOs and a review of the literature, Bartone (1996) concludes that three significant interventions are needed. First, advanced training and preparation is essential. Second, procedures for fast and accurate transfer of casualty information need to be established. Finally, casualty workers need debriefing.

Post-Army Casualty Assistance

Official Army responsibilities may last for a few weeks or a few months. Unofficial responsibilities may continue for some time. At the organizational level, U.S. Army casualty programs and policies aimed at soldiers and their survivors assist the deceased soldier in transitioning his or her family to civilian life (Bartone and Ender 1994). This transition away from military affiliation may be an intense period of grief, bereavement, mourning, anger, frustration, and a host of other emotions. In addition to managing the death of the soldier with funerary functions, the Army has greatly expanded its benefits, entitlements, and services to families since World War II to help ease this transition (Bartone and Ender 1994). Although the long-term impact of these services are not fully understood, short-term casualty assistance has been shown to have a positive impact on families (Ender and Hermsen 1996). Still, American military families are exceptionally diverse and present CAOs with a host of demands (Ender and Hermsen 1996). Other organizations have helped fill some of the long- and short-term needs of families. Three such groups include Gold Star Wives (http://goldstarwives.org/index.html), Society for Military Widows (http://militarywidows.org), and Tragedy Assistance for Survivors, Inc. (http://www.taps.org).

Death in the Army Unit

Images of military funerals have become strikingly familiar—a grieving widow in a row of chairs, the rows of headstones at Arlington National or some other cemetery, the firing of the rifle salute, taps, the folding and presentation of the American flag. Such military honors become an entitlement for soldiers killed in the line of duty and former soldiers after their retirement. Fellow soldiers, however, are conspicuously absent in such images; in practice, they usually do not attend burials with military honors because soldiers represent a cross section of the nation and their final resting place is usually in their hometown. Therefore, fellow soldiers are still off fighting, training, or otherwise distanced from the gravesite of their fallen comrade during the formally rendered graveside military honors. Such circumstances have led to the tradition of soldiers honoring their fallen dead in unit rituals that are mostly unfamiliar to the public.

Unit Rituals

A military unit is a soldier’s immediate military organization or work group. In the recognition of a military death, comradeship, unlike friendship, takes on special meaning in this socially cohesive context (Katz and Bartone 1998). Comrades subordinate self for the good of each other, as captured in this segment from Gray’s (1970) The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle:

The secret of comradeship has not been exhausted, however, in the feeling of freedom and power instilled in us by communal effort in combat…. Men are true comrades only when each is ready to give up his life for the other, without reflection and without thought of personal loss. (P. 46)

Given the compelling closeness of comradeship, how can soldiers fail to attend a fellow warrior’s funeral yet recognize the sacrifice and grieve normally?

The answer, of course, is that soldiers hold their own services. Usually termed “unit memorial services,” recognition for fallen comrades takes a unique and consistent form. Services are consistent even though their genesis is in tradition and not formally prescribed by regulation or policy. These services are planned jointly between a unit chaplain and the senior sergeant, most frequently a command sergeant major. The services have traditionally included at least three consistent rituals—representations of the body, recognition of the soldier, and acceptance of death.

Representation of the Body

Because the soldier’s body is immediately transported to his or her NOK, unit members construct a representation using government equipment that was formerly in the dead soldier’s possession. A hollow wooden platform is constructed and often painted in “branch colors” to match the soldier’s assigned military specialty. For example, the color of infantry is light blue, the color for artillery is scarlet, the color for armor is yellow—at least 19 colors are possible. A slot is cut in the top of the platform, into which the soldier’s bayoneted rifle is inserted vertically. The soldier’s helmet, adorned with a camouflage band bearing the soldier’s name, is set atop the buttstock of the rifle. The soldier’s combat boots—cleaned and shined—are then set in front of the display. Finally, the soldier’s single identification tag (dog tag) is hung on the display, either from the rifle stock or the shank of the boots. The display is a ritual representation of the fallen soldier, boots at the bottom, helmet atop, ID tags and personalized helmet band, and the rifle, always the soldier’s inseparable companion. For outdoor ceremonies (usually reserved for combat or during lengthy training deployments), the display is identical, although the rifle is simply stuck into the ground. Whether indoors or out, as much effort as is practical goes into sprucing up the items for display. For example, the camouflage cloth cover for the helmet may be replaced, the rifle is immaculately cleaned, and the boots are spit-shined to a mirror finish.

Recognition of the Soldier

The unit assembles for a ceremony, either by standing in the rows and columns of a military formation or, more typically, by taking seats in a gymnasium or auditorium. The soldier is then recognized in a number of ways. Eulogies are rendered, normally by the unit commander and very often by several of the soldier’s buddies. They invariably recognize the soldier’s selflessness and professionalism and are punctuated with personal anecdotes and sometimes comical stories. Whether or not the soldier was religious, frequently there are ecumenical prayers and songs of worship to help the soldier’s comrades deal with his or her loss. For example, the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” is frequently chosen because of its balanced, nonsectarian lyrics and its familiar tune. Hymns often must be sung a cappella when the service is held under combat or outdoor training conditions.

Acceptance of the Death

It is important that soldiers accept their comrade’s death so that the process of grieving can progress beyond the immediate sense of loss. To heighten soldiers’ awareness, a ritual known as the Last Roll Call is used. Following the recognition portion of the ceremony, all are asked to stand, and the order is given for the senior sergeant (often holding the formal position of “first sergeant”) to conduct roll call—under normal circumstances a daily ritual for soldiers. The names of several members of the soldier’s unit are called, and each answers “here.” After five to seven names are called, the dead soldier’s name is called, and no one answers. The first sergeant calls the name three times, and each time, there is only silence. A traditional rifle salute is cued during the silence that follows. Upon completion of the salute, the unit’s recognition of the soldier and his or her death is concluded.

Most ceremonies conclude with individual farewells to the deceased. Members of the unit file one by one to the rifle/helmet/boots display, render a salute, and sometimes offer brief words of farewell. Succinct phrases such as “Vaya con Dios, Bro,” “Dude, you rocked!” and other contemporary expressions of close association and affection typify the moment. Officers who command units that have adopted custom-minted coins presented as tokens of excellence, known as “commander’s coins,” will often leave a coin on the platform or by the boots, to be sent to the soldier’s family along with personal effects. These coins are not legal tender but have enormous traditional significance among soldiers. If the deceased was a qualified parachutist, sometimes the parachutist’s silver “airborne” wings are left as ritual gestures of permanent association or camaraderie. Each unit has a crest registered with the Army’s Institute of Heraldry and worn on the shoulders of the dress uniform. These crests are often left as a symbol of eternal association with the unit.

As a final gesture of respect and memorialization, a toast is often offered for the departed at the next formal or informal unit gathering at which alcohol is served. At formal events such as black tie or holiday dinners, the traditional wine toast, “To our fallen comrades” is usually offered, and never specifies a deceased soldier by name. In informal settings, a memorial toast is made to the deceased by name and is usually made with tequila, bourbon whisky, Irish whisky, or beer. Despite an official Army policy seeking to “deglamourize” the consumption of alcohol, these toasts continue to serve as a final acknowledgment that the fallen comrade will never be forgotten. Furthermore, this ritual clearly establishes respect for the fallen as a martial or “warrior” tradition, outside the more religiously flavored rituals of the memorial service.

Unit Leadership

For Army leaders, especially commanders, there is no event more important to the preservation of unit morale than a soldier’s memorial service. Commanders at all tactical levels, from two-star division commander to lieutenant platoon leaders, attend memorials and participate when appropriate. Rank-and-file soldiers unquestionably identify with the deceased. It is an officer’s solemn duty to preserve the memory of a fallen comrade and in doing so communicate respect and concern for the living soldiers in the unit. Far from being mere impression management, the common expectation is that the commander is personally involved and deeply emotionally moved. The shedding of tears is accepted and not viewed as a form of weakness. Soldiers are adept at recognizing the difference between superficiality and genuine concern. They also know that only the latter will be expressed on the battlefield, making the memorialization of soldier sacrifice among the most significant leadership responsibilities for Army leaders.

Army Community Responses to Death

Even during peacetime, the military occupation entails a high risk of injury and death. Military communities routinely confront the loss of some community members through fatal training accidents and, somewhat less commonly, large-scale air disasters or terrorist attacks (Wright 1987). Such traumatic incidents require individuals and whole communities to adjust to sudden, unexpected, and sometimes massive loss. A dramatic example occurred in December 1985, when a U.S. Army plane crashed in Canada, killing all 248 soldiers on board. This disaster provided a rare opportunity to learn about how a military community responds to sudden and large-scale death.

Military communities are traditional, foster close-knit interdependence, and provide a shared sense of community. They encompass the families of military personnel assigned to a particular locale or post, as well as nonmilitary workers engaged in providing goods and services for military members and their families. Unlike most modern civilian communities, members of military communities are distinctively bound together by a common overall work mission and by a concentration of services, homes, and activities in a well-defined geographic space, the traditional military base. American military bases are usually self-contained communities-of-place, with well-defined borders and clear rules of membership. Members of such communities usually reside on or near the base, where they have military and community facilities to meet most of their needs (i.e., schools, banks, commissary, child care services, automobile service stations, restaurants, post office, bowling alley, etc.). This is particularly true in overseas and rural posts. Consequently, there is more face-to-face contact among members of military compared with nonmilitary communities. Although certainly integrated and embedded in a variety of ways within the larger culture and polity, military communities still retain a strong sense of cohesiveness. Military communities make especially valuable case studies for understanding community responses to death.

The Gander crash, as it is now known in U.S. military circles, represents the largest single-incident loss to a U.S. Army battalion in history and the worst aviation disaster ever on Canadian soil. A chartered U.S. Army jet had stopped at Gander, Newfoundland, for refueling. The flight was carrying 248 soldiers home to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, following 6 months of peacekeeping duty in the Sinai desert. This was the second of three flights transporting soldiers back to the United States. After refueling in icy conditions, the heavily loaded DC-8 departed for its final destination, Fort Campbell. Shortly after takeoff, the plane stalled and rolled sharply to the right. It crashed into heavily forested terrain, disintegrated, and the fuel tanks exploded, scattering bodies, body parts, and debris over a wide area. Subsequent fires burned for over 14 hours, and a blizzard covered the crash site with snow and ice.

At Fort Campbell, families had assembled at the airfield to welcome the soldiers home for the Christmas holiday. Word of the tragedy reached the brigade headquarters at Fort Campbell about an hour after the crash. During the next several hours, efforts to confirm the flight manifest were initiated while families were asked to assemble in the brigade gymnasium. There, the brigade commander announced that although the report was still unconfirmed, the plane had apparently crashed in Canada, and there were no survivors. Besides various support personnel, the Army death toll included fully one-third of the infantry peacekeeping battalion. Approximately a third of the dead were married and had maintained homes at Fort Campbell. Thirty-six children were left fatherless.

Although not a “typical” community disaster—involving destruction of homes and disruption of essential services—the Gander crash was a human disaster for the military community at Fort Campbell. Sociologist Enrico Quarantelli (1985) defines community disaster as a collective, extreme stress situation disruptive to a community (p. 175). By this definition, the Gander crash was undoubtedly a community disaster for Fort Campbell. Unlike many air disasters in which the victims are strangers from scattered locations, these soldiers all lived and worked together at Fort Campbell for nearly 2 years. Even for those who are not personal friends or relatives of the dead, there is still a close affinity and identification with them that derives from having a shared occupation, lifestyle, and organizational commitment.

Following the crash, a team of Army and Air Force researchers conducted extensive interviews and observations at Fort Campbell and at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware (site of the mortuary-body identification activity), to document community and individual responses. Affected groups included military and civilian community leaders, unit commanders, mental health workers, community support providers (e.g., post Red Cross and Army community service workers), chaplains, medical personnel, morgue workers, casualty workers, widows, soldiers, and friends of the dead (Bartone and Wright 1990; Ursano et al. 1986; Wright 1987).

At Fort Campbell, not just relatives of the dead, but the entire post community was shocked by the news and experienced a collective blow. In the hours and days immediately following the crash, all nonessential activities around the post ceased while attention focused on dealing with the crisis. Regular schedules were suspended, and a series of special responses were initiated. Planned community Christmas activities were canceled or radically modified. The residents of Fort Campbell were physically far removed from the crash site at Gander, as well as from the grim scenes at the Dover mortuary. This geographic separation contributed to an air of unreality in the community. Initial reactions were primarily disbelief and shock. With most relatives located there, the post community became the focus of intense media attention. Families were of primary concern. The overwhelming sense was one of loss felt by the entire community, accompanied by an outpouring of concern for families and friends.

In the first days following the crash, several memorial ceremonies were held at Fort Campbell, with specialized services provided for bereaved families and friends. The devastated battalion was reconstituted over the Christmas holidays and resumed normal training activities about 2 weeks after Christmas. It was nearly 3 months after the crash before the last set of remains was positively identified at Dover AFB and returned to the family for burial (Wright 1987).

Leaders, Memorial Services, and Community Recovery

One factor that clearly facilitated healthy community response and recovery at Fort Campbell was the response and actions of community leaders. In the hours and days after the crash, key leaders were highly visible and provided useful role models for soldiers and other community members to follow. No outside authorities arrived to take charge. Even President Reagan during his visit deferred to the local Army commanding general, while offering sympathy and support to the community. Community leaders were both task oriented and psychologically sensitive. They clearly defined what needed to be done in the interest of community survival and recovery. Furthermore, by their own behavior under duress, they modeled appropriate responses for the rest of the community. Through their words, gestures, and shared grief, they provided permission for the rest of the community to grieve. At the same time, these leaders acted responsibly in emphasizing the need for continued work and task management.

A highly respected commanding general of the division and post immediately asserted leadership and control from the beginning. He mobilized his staff with clear directions regarding what their actions should be. In several timely public appearances and news conferences, he shared his views and guidance, affirming his leadership role in the crisis. This pattern was repeated by key subordinate leaders, such that a consistent message was broadcast to the members of the post community. This message was to (a) care for the grieving families, (b) recover and pay homage to the dead comrades, (c) experience and accept their own pain and help each other deal with it, and (d) direct their energies to the continuing mission with renewed commitment and dedication. This message was reinforced by the example set by the leaders themselves.

Several leaders in the Fort Campbell community assumed critical roles in the mourning process, solidifying the community in the aftermath of the crash. For example, at the planned homecoming in the gymnasium where families were awaiting the arrival of soldiers, the brigade commander stood and spoke to the group. He communicated news of the crash in sometimes emotional tones and assured families that information would be passed on as soon as it became available. He focused attention on the importance of not being alone in grief and expressed empathy with those who had lost friends and family. At times, he wept openly. This willingness to express his own grief seemed to facilitate a healthy abreaction for both families and troops.

The “Presidential Memorial Service” 4 days later provided additional examples of a phenomenon that has been described as “grief leadership”—that is, behaviors and statements by key community leaders that serve to facilitate healthy coping with loss and grief among members of the group (Wright 1987). In confronting grief associated with group loss, effective leaders take actions that have the effect of unifying the community in the mourning process. President and Mrs. Reagan joined the division commander and his wife in a televised memorial service at Fort Campbell. The division commander noted the value of the president’s “sharing our sorrow” and walked with the president to greet and console bereaved families. Reagan indicated that he represented the concerns of the American people and that “the entire nation was grieving” along with Fort Campbell.

Several days later, a division memorial service was held on the Fort Campbell parade grounds. This was significant in that the entire Fort Campbell community, including adjacent townspeople, participated. The division commander pointedly remembered each “fallen eagle” by announcing his or her name, rank, and home state, along with a cannon salute for each. Nearly 3 months later, a special service was held in observance of the positive identification and burial of the final victim. The division commander decreed a 1-minute sounding of post sirens, followed by 2 minutes of silence to honor the 248 soldiers who died. Without fanfare, people stopped their cars and stood quietly with heads bowed.

One important benefit of effective leadership in such crisis situations is to help reestablish a sense of control, predictability, and hope in the midst of confusion, chaos, and fear. Leaders at Fort Campbell tried to focus community attention on the opportunities to learn and grow provided by the disaster. A common theme was that by having suffered through this tragedy together, they would be stronger and even better prepared for the national defense mission. This quality of positive leadership through disaster is often lacking in community disasters. This can occur even when good leaders are available within the unit or community but external and political factors make it difficult for recognized leaders to perform their leadership role. The response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, apparently did include many examples of highly effective leadership. For example, Thomas-Lawton, Whitworth, and Doherty (2002) document the critical role of leaders at the Pentagon site in facilitating healthy responses. And New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was widely praised in the media for his highly effective leadership following the 9/11 attacks.

Strong and sensitive community leaders appear to be a necessary ingredient to the positive responses observed at Fort Campbell. As described above, these leaders focused the group on shared values, common goals, and the mutual experience of loss and bereavement. This perspective was reinforced through a series of memorial services that united the community, fostering a sense of integration and solidarity. Also important are clear (and nonconflicting) lines of authority and leaders who can focus group attention on the work of recovery as well as on the ongoing task responsibilities of the organization. Such leaders appear instrumental in imparting a sense of control amid an atmosphere of chaos, coherence in the midst of confusion, and hope instead of despair. They help the community direct its energy toward “rising to the challenge” offered by the disaster and learning useful lessons from the experience. Memorial services at Fort Campbell were often emotional events that reinforced the solidarity of the community in the grieving process. The family reception at the brigade gym on the morning of the crash was the first and most spontaneous of these memorials. Under the leadership of the brigade commander, the value of grieving together as a community was reinforced. The same theme was played out in other memorial services held over the next few weeks.

Flexible Responses and Community Recovery

In the early aftermath of the Gander crash, the Fort Campbell community seemed to revert to a more “flat” form of social organization, in which normal functional boundaries seemed unimportant. For some days, the entire community focused on the same event, the violent death of 248 loved soldiers. Key community leaders stepped forward and, by speaking often of the common pain experienced and the need for survivors to support each other, reinforced this sense of basic community solidarity. Correspondingly, formal roles and relationships in the Fort Campbell community shifted to more informal, implicit bonds based on mutual support in crisis. The shift in formal roles, the blurring of rigid organizational boundaries, and the relaxing of normal rules and regulations permitted several unusual and effective interventions following the crash.

Fritz (1961) observed that disasters frequently “provide an unstructured social situation that enables persons and groups…to introduce desired innovations into the social system” (p. 685). Several innovative solutions were applied at Fort Campbell in the desire to “find something that works.” Some have even since been integrated into standard Army procedures. The best example of this is the Family Assistance Center (FAC), which was a creative and effective solution to an unusual set of problems. Here, families could address any legal issues, provide necessary information to personnel and finance representatives, make decisions about funeral and burial matters, and also talk with chaplains, psychiatrists, and mental health workers who were on hand.

Despite the powerful sense of pain and grief at Fort Campbell, there was a strong community attitude of hope and rebuilding. Ordinarily strict interagency boundaries were relaxed as the post mounted a unified effort to assist families. Regulations were changed or waived to provide quick and humane assistance to the bereaved. An enhanced sense of community solidarity was reported by many of those interviewed, as well as a greater sense of meaning in life. Many believed that their actions made a significant difference to suffering families. A similar sense of teamwork and solidarity was observed in the reconstituted unit, where fears that replacement soldiers would be rejected were seen to be unfounded. Instead, the replacements were perceived as allies in the rebuilding of the social unit (Bartone and Wright 1990). Six months after the crash, this unit received several performance awards won in competition with other units across the division. Although a variety of symptoms were reported by many respondents, including sleep disturbances, guilt, and alcohol abuse, these were usually transitory. No lasting ill effects were apparent in the community as a whole.

Thus despite the pain and sadness experienced at Fort Campbell following the Gander crash, there were several positive features to the community response. Most notable was the generalized sense of strengthened social cohesion and group solidarity. This was especially apparent in the most severely affected battalion but was also observed throughout the community. Historically, this effect has been observed in other groups affected by disaster. For example, in summarizing a series of flood and tornado studies, Fritz (1961) describes disasters as “unifying forces” that often foster mutual aid and cooperation in communities. Other investigators have reported similar beneficial outcomes in cohesive social groups confronted by extreme stressful circumstances (e.g., James 1911; Janis 1951). Based on the Fort Campbell response to the Gander disaster, such positive community responses are facilitated by strong and caring community leaders who reestablish control and direction while also using memorial services to honor the dead and unite the community. A willingness to be highly flexible and adapt the services and structures of the community to the specific needs and circumstances generated by the disaster also helps to ensure a positive community outcome. Here also, responses after September 11, 2001, appear to be characterized by a similar flexibility among the various agencies involved. For example, Huleatt et al. (2002) describe highly flexible interagency responses at the Pentagon aimed at providing maximum assistance and support to bereaved family members.


The U.S. military provides an exceptional social and historical context in which to study death. The U.S. Army in particular is a unique American subculture with a distinct language, rituals, community caste system, and specific organizational practices and traditions. In this chapter, we featured the Army’s programs and policies aimed at preparing for casualties and assisting survivors to adjust to death. Military deaths in and around the organization, wars, and military deployments involving military actions other than war, show sharp changes over time. Unit rituals provide insight into the need for mourning in a masculine-dominated culture. Military community responses show the degree to which bereavement and grief transcend individual needs and experiences.

There are certainly other areas of research adjoining death and the military. Notable topics include the casualties hypothesis (Burk 1999), suicides and homicides in the military (Helmkamp and Kennedy 1996), amicicide and friendly fire (Snook 2002), and war memorials (Hass 1998). Future research might include the long-term bereavement and impact on children of military members; death studies of specific subgroups of the armed forces, including Navy, Air Force, and Army comparisons; death at the military academies and in the special military forces such as the Navy’s SEALS and the Army’s Green Berets; young widowhood and remarriage; the dying process in the military; military cemeteries; the families of MIAs and POWs; and the study of artifacts and death in the military such as commemorative quilts in response to the September 11 attack on the Pentagon. Indeed, any studies cited in the chapters written for this handbook could be replicated in a military context, and new knowledge about the social study of death will likely be revealed.