Monday, April 9, 2007

cnd military lock-down of communications

When soldiers die, an internal military process takes over
The GlobeandMail With a report from Canadian Press April 9, 2007

One month ago, Private Kevin Kennedy said he could hardly wait to take on the Taliban. "Everyone is really pumped here this morning," the 20-year-old told The Canadian Press, as 5,000 allied forces prepared to launch a massive assault. "We came here. We've trained for years and we are finally going to go out and do our job and we are ready to do it."

Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, the young soldier's hometown of 1,500 was plunged into mourning by news of his death.

"This is devastating news. There's a lot of broken hearts," said Wayde Rowsell, mayor of St. Lawrence, Nfld. He remembered seeing the young infantryman in a cadet's uniform just a few years ago in high school. Pte. Kennedy came back to the province last Christmas, to see his family, prior to deploying.

"His mom was pretty emotional, like any mom would be if her son was going off to war. . . . It did affect him that his mom was upset, but his ambition was to serve his country," Mr. Rowsell said.

Five other Canadian families were grieving their sons yesterday.

The others were identified as Sergeant Donald Lucas, 31, of Burton, N.B., Corporal Aaron E. Williams, 23, of Lincoln, N.B., and Private David Robert Greenslade, 20, of Saint John.

Also killed were Corporal Christopher Paul Stannix, 24, of Dartmouth, N.S., who was a reservist from the Halifax-based Princess Louise Fusiliers, and a sixth soldier who was not identified at the request of his family.

Most of the soldiers had been based with the Royal Canadian Regiment at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, just outside of Fredericton.

The mayor of the community that surrounds the base, Oromocto, said her town is reeling. "It's going to be one of the greatest shocks to the town of Oromocto -- when you have five, it's a big shock," said Mayor Fay Tidd. The base commander, Colonel Ryan Jestin, told reporters that "It has been an extremely tough day for CFB Gagetown and for the community."

The evening hours of Easter Sunday were tense for many families of Canadian soldiers. By early afternoon, news of the worst combat tragedy suffered by the army in Afghanistan had broken, but the identities of the dead were withheld for many hours.

The public was kept in the dark. And many military families were no better informed.

The Canadian Forces does this by design.

While little is said publicly during the initial hours after deadly attacks, a vast internal machine revs up, stifling communications as scores of military officials work to ensure the bodies of the dead are returned to their loved ones in the most sensitive manner possible.

The military begins by locking down communications from the theatre of action in Afghanistan, specifically because it wants the families of the dead to be notified first through official channels.

Soldiers injured in the attacks, and also those close to the dead, are not to place calls home for fear that leaks will cause news to be broadcast before families are properly notified.

The precautions, however, didn't stop the woman who blogs as "Military Mom at Home" from receiving an ominous phone message yesterday. "We wondered if your son was all right?" a journalist asked, explaining that six soldiers had just been killed overseas.

"I was and still am floored! (This call came before it was broadcast on the news stations.) This is the third time this happened," the outraged military mother wrote in response to the call, placed by an unidentified reporter.

"The first time was after the friendly fire in September . . . and then the second was during Operation Medusa . . . and now today."

This call was less alarming, as her son had just finished his Afghanistan rotation. But "I can only imagine the mother's (father's, sister's, family member's) reaction whose son is currently serving overseas and gets a phone call like this," Military Mom wrote.

The news of yesterday's attacks left army brass and military chaplains in Canada racing to deliver news of fatalities to the immediate families. Padres in Afghanistan also work to comfort soldiers. News of the six dead yesterday arrived as many soldiers had gathered for Easter mass in Afghanistan.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Forces said last night there were no in-house military experts available to comment on the tragedy, as most people who specialize in comforting families were left to respond to yesterday's attack.

Most of the dead soldiers were infantrymen with the Royal Canadian Regiment -- a century-old infantry division that has distinguished itself from the battle for Vimy Ridge to present times. Officials with the regiment were making comments yesterday.

Military logistics experts shave started the process of repatriating the remains into Canada. Usually, the journey home begins with a memorial service attended by members of all of the allied forces serving in Afghanistan. Then, a military plane leaves Afghanistan, transiting through Germany, where it is met by Canadian undertakers.

The slain soldiers' closest friends escort the bodies to Canada, where the plane lands at Canadian Forces Base Trenton.

Military officials and politicians usually attend a ceremony at the base, before the bodies undergo autopsies in Toronto.

After that, the remains of the soldiers are finally returned to their families, who launch their own ceremonies to commemorate the dead.

These funerals are days, perhaps weeks, away. But, yesterday, everyone from the Prime Minister on down to scores of Canadian civilians were commending the fallen for their sacrifice.