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When A Soldier Falls - The Last Letter Home

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babylonsister Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Mar-08-08 06:16 PM
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When A Soldier Falls - The Last Letter Home
The Last Letter Home
When a soldier falls, commanders face a profound task:
Accounting for a lost life to the family
March 8, 2008; Page A1

ORGUN-E, Afghanistan -- "How do you start a letter like this? How do you end it?"

On a raw November morning here, along the wild frontier bordering Pakistan, Lt. Col. Michael Fenzel spoke those words as he sat down to write to a father who would never see his son again.

Images ran through the colonel's mind. His own two toddler boys, growing up quickly every day he is away at war; the parents of Private First Class Jessy Rogers, whose own child would be forever 20 years old, his age when insurgents detonated a bomb under his Humvee.

Lt. Col. Fenzel, commander of the 1st Battalion (Airborne) of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, started writing, then stopped again. He pressed his forehead into his palms. "Jesus, this is hard," he said.

Many things have changed during hundreds of years of American warfare. But much as they did during the Revolution, Army commanders still write letters, often by hand, to soothe the bereaved, share stories of the good times and -- perhaps -- describe the circumstances of death.

The letters began as a common courtesy among militiamen fighting for independence from England in the 18th Century. Shortly after World War II, the task became obligatory. After the next of kin is notified, via telegram or a knock on the door, the dead soldier's commander is to write a detailed letter explaining what happened.

"The letter should show warmth and a genuine interest in the person to whom it is addressed," instructed the 1948 Bureau of Naval Personnel Manual, in its concise, six-paragraph passage on the matter.

These days, Chapter Eight of Army Regulation 600-8-1, "Preparation and Dispatch of Letters of Sympathy, Condolence, and Concern," has grown to eight pages. The rules can be chillingly specific. "Avoid unfitting compliments and ghastly descriptions," they say. "Do not send photographs depicting casualties."

That's not much help to a commander who sent a soldier to his death.

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