Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=77873
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 6:34:39 AM CST
WASHINGTON -- Maj. Nathan Banks used to open the Army Times to the third page and stare at the faces of the dead, all names he knew.
He’d helped the military process the information for their official death notices.
“It’s like a tissue war,” Banks said. “And people think the Army doesn’t care.”
Until it became too much, Banks said, he would cut out the portraits and paste them inside a clear vase that sat on his desk in the Pentagon. But he hasn’t been able to find the vase since returning from six months in Baghdad.
Banks has observed the path of death in the Army from fatal wound to interment. It’s given him better perspective for typing up form-letter casualty notices, he said, a duty he took on in 2005, to which he will return to in April after a few months respite.
For now, reservist Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb is processing the reports for the Department of the Army, Office of the Chief of Public Affairs. It’s only part of a job that includes handling the phones as an Army spokeswoman and doing research on Army personnel issues.
“It’s probably the most important thing we do, but the thing we like to do the least,” Edgecomb said. “There are just days when you just get tired, when you have a lot of updates.”
Everyone reacts to the job differently, the officers said. Banks said he tries to connect and Edgecomb said she tries to stay detached, but both said they drop everything when casualty paperwork lands in their e-mail inbox.
The process in itself is generally simple, no different from any data entry job.
Information collected by medical professionals in the field is sent to the Army’s Human Resources Command in Atlanta. The people there filter through and verify the information before sending the form to the team where Banks and Edgecomb work.
It takes a few keystrokes, cutting and pasting the new name, age, cause of death, Iraq versus Afghanistan, and so on, into a form letter. With a click of the send button it’s off to the Defense Department, which will release the letter to the public 24 hours after the family has been notified.
There’s an emotional side effect. It’s not just names and numbers and it’s understandable to cry every now and then, Banks said.
On his first day working casualty notices, Banks said, he remembers spending more than an hour and a half on one, checking the facts over and over again.
“That day I read everything about it,” he said. “You start to paint a picture. You see on the form: he’s young – tomorrow is his birthday – he just had a daughter – his kids are close in age to mine – he was about to come home – sometimes you know them.”
After a couple of months of work, Banks said, he sent out a death notice and a general walked up a few minutes later to say he’d found an error. Banks said it struck him at that moment how important these names were to people and how many people read the notices.
When asked if any deaths stuck out in his mind, Banks took a moment to think.
“I’ve done so many,” he said, trailing off.
Then he came to a name, Pfc. Justin R. Davis, 19, of Gaithersburg, Md., died June 2006, possibly from friendly fire.
“He was a young kid that just finished high school,” Banks said. “It was the first one where I decided I was going to go to the funeral. He was a local soldier and this was really getting close to home. I just wanted to see this one.”
Banks had never met Davis and he didn’t know any of the family or friends who stepped up to pay their final respects at Arlington National Cemetery.
He observed the ceremony, picked up a funeral program with Davis’s photo printed on the front and approached the mother during the passing. Without mentioning his job, Banks told the woman he worked at the Pentagon.
“She gave me a hug, and I’m like this lady is awesome, she’s just awesome,” Banks said.
When he went back to work on Monday, he had a new perspective and felt what he was doing really counted, the public affairs officer said.
Banks attended another funeral a few months later. This time it was 2nd Lt. Emily Perez, 23, died September 2006 from an improvised explosive device in Iraq. She was just out of West Point.
“It was another revelation,” he said.
After that Banks went to Iraq to work in public affairs. The officer said when he saw a death he could almost picture the chain of paperwork.
“It’s another thing being down in theater,” he said. “There’s more a sense of danger and death than there ever is here.”
Banks also took his turn at “Dover Duty,” carrying soldiers’ remains off planes as they return to U.S. soil for the first time. Then the officer decided to see where the Army sorts through soldiers’ personal affects – polishing wedding rings and sorting through CDs before returning them to the family. Organizing the belongings of the dead every day must be a much more difficult job than entering names in e-mails, Banks said.
“I’ve been full circle,” he said. “What’s hardest is seeing, day after day, it’s a death.”
But Banks said the circle started with life. Before he ever wrote a death notice, he worked as the public affairs contact for the family of a soldier with the 507th Maintenance Company, when it was captured. The unit included Jessica Lynch. The soldier lived and Banks got to write a different sort of notice.
“I wish I could do that for all these soldiers, to say they could come home,” he said “This is a tough job, but it has to be done, and it has to be done with dignity and respect.”