THE BLOG
30/10/2017 10:08 GMT | Updated 30/10/2017 10:09 GMT

Remembering The Messenger

Safron Beck and Jordan Fyffe rehearse scene from IED. Photo by Kathy Trevelyan

As the nation remembers the men and women lost in past wars, spare a thought for those tasked with one of the most gruelling military duties - informing the families of a fallen soldier.

Donald Trump's tactless call to the wife of a soldier killed in Niger highlights just how important sensitivity is when dealing with bereaved families.

It is something the British military understands even if it is lost on the US President.

In researching for my play I.E.D., about a troubled army casualty notification officer, it was fascinating to see how the military has refined the delivery of the very worst news.

The bitter experiences of conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed plenty of opportunity for the armed forces to re-examine the process of notification.

The dramatic scene of the arrival of a telegram for the wife or mother is a familiar trope in old war movies.

These days the task of informing the family of the death of a loved one is quietly and diligently carried out by a small group of military personnel who have volunteered to be casualty notification officers (CNO).

Wherever possible the news is delivered on the doorstep, face-to-face with the partner, parent or other next of kin.

All CNOs receive training on how to deliver their message as sensitively as possible and to avoid the thoughtless clichés and platitudes people spill out at a time of loss.

Often this duty is a race against time. There will be a press embargo on the names of fallen soldiers until the families have been informed. That is respected by the British media but there is always a possibility in a conflict like Iraq or Afghanistan that a US or foreign news outlet could get the names and broadcast or post them online.

Technology has heightened the need for speed. Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones mean bad news can spread fast. No family should have to face the additional pain of hearing about the death of a loved one on social media.

In the case of an incident involving multiple deaths, CNOs will coordinate to ensure the next of kin of all the fallen get the news at exactly the same time, irrespective of age, rank or seniority.

For the CNO the news has to be delivered in a dispassionate way, and to ensure there is no ambiguity or confusion.

The officer has to be prepared and to allow for the family's initial response, whether it is anger or tears, rage or despair. Sometimes what they are met with is sympathy, where the next of kin actually apologises to the officer for having to deliver this terrible news. For some CNOs that is much harder to take than a family in rage.

The officer is there to take the flak, to be the object of the next of kin's initial reaction, even if it is hate or anger. The CNO is not there to be a comfort or support to the family. They deliver the most awful news these people are ever likely to hear. They then withdraw and the next line of military personnel, support officers, counsellors, chaplains, will move in to be with the family.

The thinking is that by separating the duties of notification and support, it makes it easier for the families to get to the next stage of dealing with their grief. It is possible that those support officers will be part of a grieving family's life for months, even years. The family will never see the notification officer again.

For the CNOs, the duty does not sit lightly. There can be an enormous psychological and emotional toll on them. Some talk of the need for a 'blow out' after delivering a 'knock', getting blind drunk, finding some distraction to push the event out of their head.

The military ensures CNOs get access to counselling and are monitored for PTSD and that they are not asked to attend too many 'knocks'.

Technological advancements have transformed how the military operates in war. But this is one task that can never be consigned to a computer or a drone.

It is impossible to make the news any less painful to the partner and family of a soldier fallen in the field. But it is at least possible to ensure the family are informed in a respectful and honourable fashion.

I.E.D. runs at N16 Theare from 6th November to Armistice Day, 11th November, 2017. Part of 'Aftershock: N16 Military Season' theatren16.co.uk/ied