Capt. Jeremy Dunn, Rear Brigade Chaplain with the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th IBCT, performs many duties. By far the most difficult is delivering the news to families that their loved ones will not be coming back from the battleground. Making the job tougher for his casualty notification team is the necessity to go into action immediately. It works quickly, moving fast to pre-empt the delivery of the news by other sources – TV news, phone calls, Facebook and other outlets.
Oklahoma Magazine: How did you become involved with the casualty notification team?
Capt. Jeremy Dunn: Chaplains nurture the living, care for the dying and honor the dead. One way we do that is accompanying casualty notification officers on visits.
OM: Is service with a casualty notification team a volunteer duty?
JD: No, it isn’t.
OM: Okay, but surely not every soldier is a good candidate for this job.
JD: Once a soldier has been identified as a casualty notification officer, they undergo training for that role. For us chaplains, it just goes with the territory. It’s a part of our job. We receive our training when we go to chaplain school, plus our seminary education as pastors also gives us insight into that world.
OM: What does it take to perform this job?
JD: One of the important things is to understand that you have to walk the fine line between compassion and professionalism. These soldiers are not just people who are dying. These are our friends, our brothers and sisters in arms, people we know. Yet when we go to do this job, it’s not our moment to grieve. We have to reserve our emotions. There will be a time for us to grieve. Once we leave a house, we hug each other and kind of let go. That’s our moment. We have to take it in, but we don’t do it in front of the families. But you have to shut that down when you’re doing the job.
OM: Do notification teams follow a set procedure?
JD: The notification officer has a hard job. They have almost a set script they have to get out. It has to be done the same way every time. There is a bit of a robotic part to it. But once that’s out of the way, we’re there to console the family. As a chaplain, I also have a responsibility to care for that notification officer. My role is not only to provide comfort and solace to the family, but also to provide encouragement and support for the officer. They’re the ones that have to speak those harsh words.
OM: Is there a limit to the amount of information you deliver to families?
JD: Yes. But generally, when we present the information, everything we tell them is everything we know. We’re not holding anything back. It’s just that it’s more important to notify the family quickly – before we have all the details. The important thing is just to let the family know the soldier is dead. What we’re able to tell a family is that their loved one’s been killed and where. And we’re able to give them a rough sketch, maybe it was an IED, small arms fire, a vehicle accident and so on. We’re able to give them some rough details. But we remind them that the Army always conducts an investigation and once that’s completed, it gives the families a complete breakdown if they want it.
OM: A chaplain might be able to do this for a long time, but a regular officer? Are they rotated on and off the team?
JD: They are. We knew this latest deployment was going to be different, but nobody could have anticipated that we’d lose this many in such a short period of time. Right now, we’re on call for only a week at a time. The job is that hard.