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.
Are you one of those people who tweets us every weekend asking why we don’t post our HBO show online for free? If you are, you do realize that HBO is the best television network in the world, right? And, as such, can demand a premium for a lineup that may be the only reason to still have a subscription to cable, correct?
Well, either way, you’ve worn us down with your largely unreasonable demands, and HBO is streaming the season 2 premiere of VICE on YouTube for FREE. You can watch it on YouTube, before or after you finish binge-watching the entirety of season 1 for free right here on VICE.com.
How fucking awesome is that? It’s awesome, and you’re welcome, but all of this is only happening for a limited time so you better get cracking before we have to take them off the internet. Which reminds us, just subscribe to HBO already. It’s worth it, we swear.
Season two of VICE on HBO premieres tonight at 11PM! You can catch up on all of season one right here, for free.
Is Facebook Censoring the Syrian Opposition?
Last December, a woman from the Syrian community in Toronto reached out to me for help after a Syrian opposition Facebook page, for which she was an administrator, was expunged from the internet. She told me that Facebook had deleted the page, called Likes for Syria, in mid December, by which time it had garnered more than 80,000 “likes.” Several Syrian Canadians had organized the page shortly after the revolution in Syria began, back in 2011, and used it as a tool for posting news stories about the crisis, spreading messages of hope, and creating awareness in the Western world—something that many feel is desperately needed.
“We feel like our freedom of speech has been totally taken away,” said Faris Alshawaf, another administrator for Likes for Syria. “We have a right to talk about what is happening.” Facebook had removed the page once before but quickly republished it after administrators made an appeal. Just days later, Facebook deleted the page a second time.
We Asked a Military Expert How to Invade and Conquer Russia
In the past, when I’ve asked military experts from IHS Jane’s what it would take to conquer, say,America, or the UK, the idea of it actually happening in the near future was relatively far fetched. But recent events in Crimea have raised the very real possibility of conflict, so when I asked IHS Jane’s Konrad Muzyka what it would take to conquer Russia, it all suddenly felt very real.
No one wants to see Putin riding into battle on the back of a nuclear warhead, but that said, I’d like to make it clear that I, for one, welcome our new Russian overlords and would like to remind them that I could be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground vodka caves.
VICE: I’m going to begin with a classic cliche. Over the centuries, plenty of power-hungry leaders have tried to take on Russia, convinced that they would be the first to overcome the brutal Russian winter. How could a modern army deal with this ancient problem?
Konrad Muzyka: I agree that from a historical perspective this has been a problem many countries have succumbed to. But the advent of precision guided munitions and, more importantly, nuclear weapons have completely nullified the issue. Any potential conflict with the West would most likely be fought in the air, space, and sea. Any use of land forces would be limited to capturing strategically important facilities—bridges, airfields, and the like. Given the size of Russian territory, I don’t think anyone would be interested in moving their troops to Russia and holding them there.
So how quickly might any invading force find itself plunged into a nuclear winter?
Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons even in a regional conflict scenario. As such, any country taking on Russia needs to be aware of a dramatic and quick escalation that could take place. But this is a sign of weakness rather than strength.
In the days of the Red Army, it felt as though there was an endless supply of men ready to die in the name of Mother Russia. Is this still true? What’s their manpower like?
That’s true, but many of those sent into battle during the Second World War fought at gunpoint. Not only that of the Nazi Wehrmacht, but also that of their fellow Russian “comrades.” Retreat was usually forbidden, even in a tactical sense—those who were caught falling back were either shot on the spot or court-martialed… and then usually shot.
Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine (Dispatch One)
Russia has invaded the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine and taken over its civilian and military infrastructure. Not a shot has been fired so far, but Russia is using its superior force to intimidate Ukrainian troops in an attempt to get them to surrender.
Russia claims it wants to stabilize the situation on the peninsula, which has a large Russian population, but Ukraine’s new government regards the move as an occupation of its sovereign territory.
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North Korea Is About to Freak Out
The US and South Korean (ROK) militaries have begun their annual military exercises, dubbed Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. Among the largest and most important military exercises in the world, they have become a yearly spring ritual. Kind of like prom.
After all, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are costly annual spectacles that, each year, have a slightly different theme. What the events mean to you, how you prepare for them, and how badly you lose your shit over them says a lot about who you are and where you fit into the hierarchy of your peers. There’s even probably some taffeta involved.
But what makes the exercises so interesting is the wildly different strategic maneuvering they put on display—on both sides of the DMZ. The Korean War ended more than 60 years ago with a ceasefire agreement, but no peace treaty. That means the war, which resulted in more than 6.6 million military and civilian casualties—including 128,650 amongst US military personnel—never technically ended. And the large-scale military exercises regularly held on both sides of the border (they’ve been going on for decades) are incremental steps in the evolution of this conflict.
The Battle of Gettysburg’s 150th Anniversary Reenactment – Photos by Eva O’Leary and Harry Griffin
Inside the Afghan National Army
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.
(Source: Vice Magazine)