Death’s Messenger: One Soldier’s Job Delivering the Worst News Imaginable
“There’s still a war going on,” Captain Richard Siemion began. “There are still people dying—not as many as before—but it’s still happening. And when it does, the Army sends somebody like me to break the news.”
Captain Siemion was recently honorably discharged but was one of several casualty notification officers serving in upstate New York. Whenever a soldier’s death was reported, the CNO on duty would have four hours to track down the deceased’s family and deliver some of the worst news they would ever hear.
CNOs have been the focus of some interest over the last decade of American war. In 2006, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News published a Pulitzer Prize–winning series about the Marines tasked with the same job as Captain Siemion, and in 2009 Woody Harrelson starred in the independent film The Messenger. He played a CNO.
I sat down with the 31-year-old Siemion to talk about his first-hand experience telling families of active-service soldiers that their loved one have died in action.
VICE: Did you volunteer for the job? Captain Siemon: We call it being voluntold. I had just gotten back from my first tour in Afghanistan when my Battalion Commander sent me to the training course.
What did you learn there? You learn that there’s no right way to tell someone that their loved one is not returning from war, but there are a lot of wrong ways to do it. If you look at history, the way they used to tell families about a death: You had telegrams, you had taxi drivers paid to ring doorbells, you had word of mouth. Through trial and error, the United States Army got it as close to right as they can. I was always the kind of leader who didn’t go 100 percent by the book, but in this case, I went right by the book, because there is a reason why they have it the way they do. Not much room for creativity.
What do you think they got right? One thing is the idea that no job is more important than this job. So, if you’re in the middle of an important brief with a Colonel and you get called to give a notification, you say, “Gotta go.” Another thing is that you go in person. It shows the importance. Obviously you’re never going to see that individual again, or be their best friend, but if my brother died, I’d rather have it straight—face-to-face.
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In Afghanistan, springtime starts with a bang as it marks the start of the “fighting season” between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. For the first time in 12 years, the Afghan National Army (ANA) has to operate without their American allies as US troops withdraw. VICE News’ Golareh Kiazand travels to Kandahar to see how the ANA, the police, and ordinary Afghans are dealing with this turning point in a very long war.
Inside the Crumbling Walls of Kabul’s Abandoned Palace
Built in the early 1920s by King Amanullah Khan, the palace was intended as a symbol of Afghanistan’s modernization. That purpose was short-lived. The king was forced from power by religious zealots at the end of the decade, and all of his liberal reforms were rescinded.
Over the coming years, Darul Aman would serve as a medical school, a raisin warehouse, a refugee camp, and various government ministries until Afghanistan’s civil war made it an important strategic position. As an improvised fortress, it was taken and retaken repeatedly by opposing forces.
Now, a small unit of the Afghan National Army occupies Darul Aman. We pulled up to the barbed wire fence surrounding the palace, got out, and shut our doors quietly. The soldiers were lounging under a portico drinking tea, their assault rifles leaning rakishly against the pillars. We smiled and waved casually. They waved back.