I guess my bar is set very low for the Army. They just haven't handled the casualty process for my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard very well since he was killed in Iraq in May 2004. From the poor choice of Casualty Assistance Officer, the pathetic chaplain, the 3 month delay of delivery of the death certificate, 5 months for the return of Ken's personal effects, the 15 month delay in telling me the truth about Ken's death and all the other failures along the way, it's been a rocky road.
So much went wrong that it seemed to me that we were the poster family for whatever could go wrong in the casualty process, would go wrong. To be fair, there have been some shining stars in the military, who have done their best to make the journey just a bit smoother; they alone restore my faith in the feeling that the Army can do better and is a better bureaucracy than my experience has shown. As an Army brat, my Lt Colonel father always made sure that we knew we were part of the Army family, regardless of what happened, the Army would take care of it's own.
When I recently received the letter from the Army providing an update on the charitable organizations that have supported Gold Star Families, the salutation was to "Dear John Doe". It was obviously an "unfortunate mistake", as the Army spokesperson described it, but then they described the 15 month delay of hearing the truth of Ken's death as unfortunate series of events. The Army also called that delay an oversight. It's all just a little too euphemistic and easy. If the Army is so good at using euphemisms, then maybe they have a long history of bureaucratic experience finding those descriptions. I'm not sure it's something you want to get good at.
Most people probably won't remember a similar incident that occurred back in December 2004, when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that he would personally sign all condolence letters to families of the fallen, because despite previous denials, he admitted that in the past he has not personally signed more than 1000 letters. There is a special place in hell for someone who uses an autopen to sign condolence letters. PERIOD. NO EXCEPTION. Rumsfeld never apologized, however, a Pentagon spokesman said, “In the interest of ensuring timely contact with grieving family members, he has not individually signed each letter.” You can imagine that that insensitive statement did not relieve my pain in any way. I did not go to the mailbox everyday in anticipation of receiving a condolence card from the Secretary of Defense. It isn't right, but we came to expect that kind of arrogance from Donald Rumsfeld.
This "Dear John Doe" error is not the worst thing the Army has done and sadly if won't be the last "unfortunate mistake" they make. These kinds of errors, however unintentional, are so painful to a family member who lost a loved one. I wish the Army could get it right the first time. We deserve better.
Our local CBS affiliate in San Francisco, CBS 5, did a nice story on the "The Dear John Doe letters".