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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Army Pressed on Handling of Casualties

By Gretchen Ruethling / New York Times

CHICAGO, Oct. 12 - Gay Eisenhauer learned about the death of her son in Iraq from an Army officer who read the news to her from a piece of paper at her house. Mrs. Eisenhauer and her husband, who live in Pinckneyville, Ill., later picked up their son's body in the cargo bay at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, surrounded by boxes, luggage and airport employees.

"It was a very tough place to meet your son," said Mrs. Eisenhauer, the mother of Pfc. Wyatt Eisenhauer, 26, who was killed by an explosive device in May. She said the Army casualty officer who delivered the news was impersonal. "When we bring them home and we call them heroes, let's treat them like heroes all the way," she said.

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, both Democrats, met Wednesday with the Eisenhauers and the mother of another dead soldier who complained about what they considered insensitive treatment by the Army.

Mr. Blagojevich said that in a separate meeting Wednesday, Francis J. Harvey, the secretary of the Army, told him and Mr. Quinn that the Army would review its casualty assistance procedures and provide training where needed. Mr. Harvey also said the Army would establish a phone line for families that were unsatisfied with their treatment, according to the governor.

"This is not designed to be pointing fingers of blame," said Mr. Quinn. "Mistakes have been made, and they need to be corrected immediately."

The other parent in the meeting, Joan Neal of Libertyville, Ill., said she had waited more than eight months to receive the belongings of her son, Spc. Wesley Wells, 21, and a year to receive a report on the circumstances of his death in Afghanistan in September 2004. He was killed by crossfire at an observation post. "To get the formal briefing of his death the day before the anniversary of his death doesn't say much on respect to the families," she said.

Paul Boyce, a spokesman for the Army, said Mr. Harvey called for the review last month. Mr. Boyce said that the Army encourages airports to be respectful when soldiers' coffins arrive and that officers are not trying to be insensitive if they use notes when notifying families of a death.

"There are times when the individual is so dedicated to make sure he shares everything he or she knows and relay it to the family that he will refer to notes," Mr. Boyce said.

A family may have to wait for a death investigation to be completed before they get information, he said.

Eric Schuller, a senior policy advisor for Mr. Quinn, said the state has received complaints of insensitivity and lack of communication from at least a dozen families.

Mr. Schuller said Army protocol tells officers not to read from a script when notifying families of deaths. In Mrs. Eisenhauer's case, it was the officer's first visit to a family, he said.

Judith C. Young, national president of American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., an organization for women whose children died in the military, said such problems were uncommon and often stemmed from a lack of training. "Not everyone can handle this kind of assignment," she said.

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