The four-star commandant of the Marine Corps presented the family of Lance Cpl. Dion Stephenson with the flag that had been draped over the casket at the Monday funeral for Utah's first victim of ground fighting in Operation Desert Storm.
But it was a captain from Tooele who has been the military's first and official contact with the family - and whose service did not end with the completion of the difficult task of notifying the Marine's parents that their oldest son had been killed in a battle against Iraqi ground forces."It takes your utmost skill and judgment in dealing with the next of kin and their families," said Capt. Alfred McLaren, who knocked on the door of the Stephenson's Bountiful home at about 2 a.m. Jan. 31 along with a chaplain and two other officers. "It's probably the hardest thing I've done since I've been a Marine."
McLaren did not know Dion Stephenson before getting the assignment to tell the family of the 22-year-old's death. But at the graveside service at Bountiful's City Cemetery, McLaren told the family and several hundred others in attendance how much he had grown to appreciate the family's patriotic spirit and dedication to each other during the time he has spent helping them make arrangements, which included bringing their other Marine son, Shaun, home from Saudi Arabia to accompany his brother's body.
The crowd at the cemetery was filled with representatives from every branch of the military - even the Coast Guard.
The likelihood that more casualties are ahead may have left many of those in uniform at the funeral proceedings wondering if they will have the same experience McLaren has had.
"Because of the seriousness and possibility of a ground war, we're going for it," said Maj. Bill Auer, spokesman for the 96th Army Reserve Command at Fort Douglas. "Virtually every officer on active duty in active status - whether it be an active component or AGR (Active Guard and Reserve) - has been qualified and trained," he said, on the procedure for notifying families if a loved one has been killed, seriously wounded, reported missing in action or taken captive, Auer said."It's an additional duty that nobody ever takes lightly. It was explained in the last briefing we went through - handle this as if you would want your family handled if it were you."
McLaren said the trek to the Stephenson home in the wee hours of the morning was probably scheduled with as much immediacy as possible to ensure the government's official representatives arrived at the house before the family started getting phone calls or other contacts from non-official sources.
"Normal policy is that from 10 at night to 6 in the morning we try not to do it, but it's determined on a case-by-case basis. In this case, they wanted notification done immediately."
Auer said there is no memorized script. "The general guideline is to convey the situation and let them know that the government and president regret what happened and to let them know what the circumstances were, if we know."
"In my case, I asked to come inside," McLaren said. "You want to avoid doing it at the front door. You try to sit down with the next of kin and explain what happened, but be pretty straightforward and to the point."
What comes next depends on the reception the notification officer receives at the home, McLaren said. "You can't really be trained on how you're going to do it. It's not an automatic by-the-numbers type of thing. It's about as hard getting the words out to the next of kin as it is for the next of kin to hear it."
A casualty assistance officer follows the notification officer to help the family with a variety of tasks. In the event a soldier is reported missing or is taken prisoner, the assistance officer delivers status updates as they become available.
The assistance officer also helps take care of other family needs, including funeral arrangements. In Stephenson's case, the funeral included full military honors.
In addition to the uniformed color guard, 21-gun salute and taps, the grave side service also included a formation fly-over of Apache attack helicopters, which is unusual at a funeral for a non-aviator, and the presentation of the flag by four-star general Alfred Gray, the commandant of the Marine Corps.