Bearers of the worst kind of military news

BROOK PARK, Ohio -- Twice this week, Lt. Col. Kevin Rush donned his dress greens, drove to the home of a family that had just lost a Marine and made what he calls "that fateful walk up to the door."

It doesn't take long for the family to discern the purpose of his visit.

"The minute we ask them if we can come inside and have them sit down so we can talk to them, it starts to dawn on them that we're not there with happy news," said Rush, standing in his Marine khakis outside the Marine Reserve Center in Brook Park. Fourteen of the Marine Reserves killed in Iraq this week were from the Ohio-based 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines.

The Marines call them CACOs: casualty assistance calls officers. The job title differs slightly among the military branches, but the foreboding task is the same: being the bearer of the worst kind of news.

The military has come a long way from the Vietnam-era telegrams. Today, the Defense Department lays out its protocol in a 59-page document, and the Marines use their own 80-page manual and daylong classes. There are videos that teach officers about the paperwork, death benefits and how best to soften the blow.

The Army has its own list of do's and don'ts: make the visit as "inconspicuously" as possible, do not offer "gory or embarrassing" details, do not hold notes while approaching the home and never stop at a tavern en route or arrive with "liquor on your breath."

Marine Capt. Mike Menke, the CACO coordinator for Baltimore's 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, completed his class last week.

"I just hope I never had to do one," he said. "Unless you've gone through one, you probably can't understand it."

Rush, the site commander of the Ohio battalion, had the grim responsibility of notifying the families of two of the fallen Marines that their relatives were killed in action.

"The Marine Corps policy is not to hold anything back, so if they want to know the details, even if they're really bad, I'll tell them anything I can," Rush said.

They almost always do, he added.

Sgt. Maj. Mark Brokaw, the inspector instructor at the Marine Reserve Center in Brook Park, called the task "probably one of the toughest things that you'll ever have to do in your life."

No training can truly prepare one for the job, said Brokaw, who on Tuesday informed the family of one of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines' five snipers killed in an attack on Monday.

"You have manuals and stuff that gives you guidance, but you simply have to go with your heart-instinct of what you feel is appropriate," he said.

The first time Marine Capt. Ed Caricato of Baltimore made that long walk to the door his stomach turned sour, he recalled in an interview yesterday.

'Knot in my stomach'

"There is nothing to compare it to. It is a knot in my stomach that I literally have never felt before," said Caricato of the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion. "And you don't get used to it -- not that."

There's a script in the U.S. Marine manual -- "On behalf of the commandant of the Marine Corps we are here to inform you that your (son or daughter or spouse or parent) has been killed" -- but no one expects the CACO to work from a speech, said Bryan Driver, a spokesman for the Marine Casualty Assistance Office in Quantico, Va.

Caricato can't recall even the first words out of his mouth. En route to both of his CACO assignments, he and another officer spent the drives memorizing family member names and pronunciations and relations. When the doors opened, Caricato swallowed hard and pushed the reluctant words out.

"CACOs aren't required to use the script; the situation dictates," Driver said. "Survivors aren't always going to open the door and just stand there and listen. ... They might faint or collapse or slam the door in your face."

On Monday, Adriana Rock knew the moment she looked through the see-through curtain at her home in Toronto, Ohio. Two Marines in dress uniforms and a sheriff's deputy stood at her front door. They didn't need to say a word. Her son Nate was dead.

"You knew what happened. You knew that was it," Rock said yesterday in a phone interview, her voice breaking with emotion. "They knew, and I knew, and I just said, 'No, no, no' ... and they just held my hand."

Sgt. Nathaniel S. Rock, 26, was among the first five members of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines to die in fighting this week in Iraq. Nine others would die two days later.

The CACOs, from West Virginia, stayed with Adriana Rock for an hour, maybe longer. The sheriff's deputy radioed dispatch to make sure the family's priest knew to come to the home right away.

To her repeated queries -- "Are you sure? Are you sure?" -- the two military men could just say softly, "Yes, Mrs. Rock, we're sure."

They gave her what information they could. They stayed until the priest arrived and long enough to make sure she reached family members. When they left, they made sure she knew how to reach them.

"That has to be a helluva job for them," she said. "Who would want that job? I wouldn't."

Tracy Miller of Towson said she doesn't count herself as a "fan of the military," but when her 22-year-old son, Marine Cpl. Nicholas L. Ziolkowski, was killed in Iraq in November, she was comforted by the care and concern she and her family received from the Marines.

The Marines simultaneously sent out two different two-person casualty assistance teams after he died -- one to Miller's Towson home, the other to her former husband's in Germantown -- to make sure neither learned the news before the other.

The two sergeants who came to her door didn't know many details of her son's death, but they told her what they could. And when she was ready for privacy, they left her alone.

Bureaucratic details

The next morning, Miller, her ex-husband and the four Marines met up again, this time to go through the more bureaucratic details related to the death: shipping and burial arrangements, life insurance, and various death benefits and payments tied to the death of a Marine.

The benefits are detailed in a box of documents mailed overnight to the appropriate CACO -- usually a reservist stationed near the family of the deceased -- and then given to the family one or two days after the death.

The benefits include $400,000 in life insurance, a $100,000 "death gratuity" to cover the next of kin's expenses, and about $7,000 for burial.

The notifying officer remains the family's liaison indefinitely, providing administrative and emotional support when needed.

Some officers even attended Ziolkowski's funeral, Miller said.

A sergeant told Miller that while she can't change the past, she could "help make it easier to deal with."

"And I think she did. I think they both did," Miller said.

Months later, when Miller had questions about death benefits, she called the sergeant again. The officer asked about Miller's granddaughter, and Miller e-mailed her a photo.

"I don't know if everyone develops a relationship with them or [if] it's just me," Miller said. "But I found out where they're from, about their families. ... I think it just makes it all more human."

Sun staff writer Laura Cadiz contributed to this article. Barrett reported from Washington, Davis from Ohio and Goldberg from Baltimore.