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Soldiers get ready for goodbye

A must read piece in the LATimes:

Ft. Bragg, N.C. — THE battalion commander rose to address the families of soldiers bound for Iraq. Lt. Col. Mark Stock was responsible for the safety of 820 paratroopers and, ultimately, the life trajectories of hundreds of toddlers, spouses and parents squeezed into the pews of a base chapel.

There was no easy way to say what had to be said.

Stock uttered a single word: "Casualties."

The families fell silent, except for the sudden stab of a baby's cry.

"It's not something we like to talk about," said Stock, his forehead slick with sweat in the stifling heat of the chapel. "It's certainly something that makes us all uncomfortable. But it's important…. This is the down and dirty."

So he told them: how a spouse is always told face to face, never by phone or e-mail, that a soldier has died. How phone lines and e-mail servers are shut down on bases in Iraq when someone is killed. How a wounded soldier is allowed to call home, and how someone at Ft. Bragg will nonetheless read a family member the official account from Iraq describing how a soldier was injured 6,500 miles away.

And this: how everyone in Stock's battalion should have completed a will, a power of attorney, a military life insurance certificate and a DD Form 93. This form designates beneficiaries for military insurance and the "death gratuity" paid to the families of the fallen.

What thoughts occupy the minds of soldiers, and their loved ones, as they ship out for war? How does a family prepare for an endeavor in which death or disfigurement is not merely an occupational hazard, but an actuarial certainty for a small but predictable number?

How does a commander motivate his troops for a war that a majority of Americans, according to opinion polls, has written off as a lost cause built on half-truths — a war that even some retired generals who fought in it have called a calamity of historic proportions?...