Martin C. Evans

A Painful Task: Delivering The Knock Parents Dread

In Uncategorized on May 8, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Marine First Sgt. Amber Kash visits grave of LCpl. James Argentine, whose parents Kash had notified of his death. (Newsday photo by Charles Eckert)

The Marine in dress greens appeared on the front porch of the East Northport home on a warm July morning.

“Do you have a son, Cpl. Christopher Scherer, in the Marines . . .?” she began. “The commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret . . .”

Janet and Timothy Scherer’s 21-year-old son had been killed by a sniper hours earlier in Iraq. First Sgt. Amber Kash, a casualty assistance calls officer, stood at the front door to deliver the news. The impression she made that day, July 21, 2007 — her sad, serious face, how her lips moved when she spoke, how her voice and her words seemed so unreal, how she delivered a message so filled with pain — have stayed with the couple every day since.

“She’s the woman who delivered the worst possible news of our lives to us on a Saturday morning,” Tim Scherer said. “But she’s the woman who has held us up so that we could handle that news.”

The Scherers and two other families she would later notify of combat deaths say that Amber, as they affectionately call her, melds duty with compassion.

She has returned often to the Scherer home to sit and talk with them, to let them know she was still there. Nearly three years after appearing on the porch, Kash has remained a vital presence in the couple’s lives — a Marine who came on official business to tell an American family their son was dead, and stayed on as a friend. It is the same with members of two other families to whom she brought similar news — JoAnn Lyles in Sag Harbor, and Bob and Janet Argentine in Farmingdale.

“The Marines are Semper Fidelis, always faithful. And I can see through Amber that that is etched in their soul, that she will always take care of me,” said Lyles, whose son Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter was killed in Iraq.

In the eight years since the United States first began sending troops to Afghanistan and later to Iraq, casualty officers representing all five military branches have visited the next of kin of the nearly 6,500 troops who have been killed in action — including at least 45 from Long Island.

Known as “caco’s”, not only do they  inform families of a service member’s death, they are expected to remain in close contact with the family through the funeral and beyond. In addition to comforting the bereaved, the casualty officer handles myriad details that a military death brings with it.

Acting on the family’s wishes, they coordinate all aspects of the funeral details, even making sure the deceased’s uniform at a viewing is perfect — the buttons of the jacket in alignment with the belt buckle, for example — and offer travel arrangements for eligible family members. They deliver the military’s $100,000 “death gratuity” check to the Marine’s survivors. They help with paperwork, insurance policies, survivor benefits, housing, education grants and other needs.

Newsday is running powerful photographs and video with Kash’s story. See it, and the full text of this article, on Newsday’s website and in Sunday’s newspaper.

Angel of Death: First Sgt. Kash, with dog tags of three Marines whose deaths she has announced.

To be sure, the military has often botched the notification process or has been ham-fisted in handling the details that confront grieving families.

Dorine Kenney, whose son, Army Spc. Jacob Fletcher was killed in Iraq in 2003, said she was forced to deal with a new Army casualty officer every few weeks as previous ones were called away on new deployments.

She said she was distraught when the Army would forward shipments of her dead son’s personal effects without notifying her first, or making sure a CACO was there to ease the shock.

“I wanted someone with me because I was scared to death of what was inside,” said Kenney, of Middle Island, who said she called a friend to open the boxes with her.

These possibilities floated through Kash’s mind as she prepared to visit the Scherer home — her first assignment as a CACO .

“As I was walking up to the Scherer house, I literally almost threw up,” Kash, 36, said. “It was a really, really emotional time for me, knowing I was going to have to do this. I was very, very hurt internally that I had to give this family the news. I looked at it like I just destroyed this family’s life.”

Former Staff Sgt. Michael Gilmore, of Astoria, who retired from the Marines two years ago, had assisted Kash with the notification that day.

“I served in combat in Iraq and I can honestly say I was never more terrified than the morning we walked up to the Scherer’s door,” Gilmore said. “It was the first notification for both of us.”

“It’s the greatest privilege the Marine Corps ever gave me,” Gilmore said. “And the worst job they ever gave me.”

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