CHICAGO – Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn today met with U.S. Secretary of the Army, Dr. Francis J. Harvey, to describe problems Illinois families have had with the Army’s procedures for notifying next of kin when a soldier is killed. The two also presented recommendations for improving the Casualty Assistance protocol in Illinois, which is the program for providing death notification and follow-up support for families of fallen Illinois soldiers. The Governor and Lt. Governor requested the meeting with the Army’s highest official after hearing from several Illinois families who encountered insensitive casualty assistance officers, delays in notification and other problems after their loved ones were killed in the line of duty.
"Losing a family member is one of the most painful things any of us can go through. I can’t imagine how much more difficult the news of a death would be if it’s delivered late or by someone unprepared for the task, or is accompanied by bureaucratic delays. Unfortunately, some families of our fallen heroes have had to deal with these amateurish and completely unnecessary problems," said the Governor. "We hope our meeting with Secretary Harvey today will eliminate these kinds of issues in the future."
"More than 100 Illinois men and women have given their last full measure of devotion in service to our country and our Gold Star families deserve to be informed of their loved one’s death in an immediate and respectful manner by trained professionals," Quinn said. "Our meeting with Secretary Harvey and these families is a step in the right direction."
Before meeting with Sec. Harvey, the Governor and Lt. Governor talked with the families of Army Pfc. Wyatt Eisenhauer from Pickneyville and Army Spc. Wesley Wells of Libertyville about the their dealings with the Army after their sons deaths. Eisenhauer was killed in May 2005 while on an escort mission in Iraq when an improvised explosive device detonated on a bridge. The Casualty Assistance Officer sent to notify the Eisenhauers had never before been assigned to casualty call and had little training. He read his lines from a book using a very impersonal manner. Wells died in Afghanistan in September 2004 after his observation post was fired upon by anti-coalition militia. Following his death, his family received The Bronze Star certificate listing the wrong military campaign, Operation Iraqi Freedom. His wife and mother waited for more than a year for a report on the cause of his death, and for more than eight months to receive his personal effects from Afghanistan.
The families of Eisenhauer and Wells are two of several that have reached out to the state in the aftermath of losing a family member in the War on Terror. Lt. Gov. Quinn’s office has taken a lead in helping individual families get better service from the military. Today’s meeting with Sec. Harvey was intended to produce long-term, systemic changes within the Army’s Casualty Assistance program to ensure families will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.
Gov. Blagojevich and Lt. Gov. Quinn specifically asked the Army to implement the following changes:
· Better officer training for grief counseling for families, including dealing with distraught relatives and carefully managing local media;
· Better organization to ensure proper body transport from overseas to the family and managing funeral details with the family, military, and local funeral home;
· Complete and prompt delivery of all the service member's awards and decorations to the family;
· Better training to secure all state and federal benefits/programs available to the family;
· And, create a mentoring program to allow officers to volunteer and learn "on the job" rather than being assigned to the Casualty Assistance Program.
"We are hopeful that the Eisenhauers’ and Wells’ family ordeals were not in vain. Their willingness to share their frustrations gives the Army an opportunity to improve its handling of soldiers’ deaths," the Governor said in closing.