Back Home: Delivering The Worst News

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(Sacramento, CA)
Sunday, March 25, 2007

The call could come at any time.  For Sergeant First Class Don Vasquez of the Army National Guard it came on a weekend – just after he’d put his three boys to bed:

 “I was a little caught off guard – certainly unprepared to be able to deal with the emotions of a family.”

Vasquez gathered his wits, shined his shoes and put on his green full dress uniform.  Then he gathered the necessary paperwork and spent three hours in the car rehearsing what he’d say to the Redding-area family whose son had died in the line of duty.

 “ You try and in your own thought process, try and realize how you’d tell your mother if it were you, having to deliver this news – or how I’d appreciate somebody to notify me if it were my son or daughter.”

He knocked on the door at 1 a.m.  A physician had already notified the family, against regulations.  But Vasquez didn’t know that.  All he knew was that he wanted to be doing almost anything else:

 “I would much rather take a deployment than have to be prepared to address a family about their loved one.”

Vasquez admits it’s tough to talk about.  He’s soft-spoken – and uncomfortable with the gravity of the subject.  Most of all, he wants people to know the compassion he feels for the families and the soldiers he never had the chance to meet.  He gestures against a table with emotion:

 “The uniform is worn by a human being – male, female – it is worn by a human and so emotion is a very large part in dealing with the families, so professionalism is first and foremost, but compassion is right next to it.  They’re hand in hand and without it the families – you just couldn’t take care of the families without being compassionate.”

There are actually two different jobs soldiers may get tapped to do.  The first is to notify a family about the death of a loved one.  The other is to assist them afterwards with paperwork, funeral arrangements, and benefits.  Vasquez has done both.  Right now he’s assisting a Roseville family who recently lost a son in Afghanistan.  The military assigns the task based on geography and rank – only higher ranking servicemen and women perform the duty:

 “I think that the notification officer is probably the hardest responsibility and the most difficult responsibility to undertake – no amount of training can prepare you for the emotions and the frustration that family members may have.”

He says there is some training - in regulations and grief management.  And he has the opportunity to receive counseling himself, too -though he’s leaned on his wife instead:

“It’s kind of nice to be able to go home and talk to somebody who’s not in uniform.”

Sergeant Vasquez just celebrated his 18th year of service in the military.  His day job is logistics - he makes sure equipment is where it needs to be.  But performing notification duties has affected him:


“You’re left with questions yourself.  Obviously I’m in the service and all of these things come to light – my wife, my family – my family members and in that instance it brings reality to the sacrifices that I’ve agreed to make.”

He says he’s seen the choices families are forced to make after the death of a soldier – and that’s caused him to make sure all of his own paperwork is in order.  He doesn’t know if he will be asked again to notify or assist a family in that most difficult of times:

“I don’t think it would be accurate for me to say that I would want to.  I don’t think any soldier wants to take on this responsibility, but I know that every soldier will do if called upon.”

He says it’s a good thing that no one soldier is assigned full-time to the difficult task, because the emotional toll is too high.