Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Army Sgt. Joel L. Murray

Remember Our Heroes

Army Sgt. Joel L. Murray, 26, of Kansas City, Mo.

Sgt. Murray was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan.; died Sept. 4, 2007 in Baghdad of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device. Also killed were Spc. David J. Lane and Pvt. Randol S. Shelton.

Father recalls receiving news of soldier son’s death

By Tim Unruh
Salina Journal

SALINA, Kan. — Kenneth Murray was reading a news report on the Internet that Wednesday morning, about a Humvee that had been hit the day before in Sadr City, Iraq.

“There was this graphic description of what happened to the people. It was more information than I needed to know,” he recalled.

The attack occurred where Murray’s 26-year-old son, Sgt. Joel Murray, had been on missions.

“I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, there’s a lot of Humvees in that area. I hope it’s not Joel.’ Then my doorbell rings,” said Murray, who lives in Simpson, a small town in Mitchell County.

He answered to find uniformed Army officers, one a chaplain, from Fort Riley.

At that instant, “I knew what happened. When two field grade officers walk up to your door, it’s not good news,” Murray said.

His son was among three killed Sept. 4 when an improvised explosive device hit the Humvee he was riding in.

It is the Army’s duty to inform loved ones. Casualty notification officers also notified Joel’s mother, Ann Meuli, in Salina and Joel’s wife, Maricel Murray, in Ogden.

Deb Shelkey, a civilian employee in Fort Riley’s casualty office, said that in each case, the officer recites the same message, which begins:

“The secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son (or daughter) was killed in action ...”

Kenneth Murray always knew there was a chance his son, who was on his second tour in Iraq, would be hurt or killed.

“You always know your son’s an infantryman who puts himself in harm’s way. And you also know that he knows what can happen. But he does it, and that makes him different than most people,” he said.

While Kenneth Murray, family and friends mourn the loss of a loved one, he also hurts for the soldiers charged with delivering the dreadful news to families.

“I tell ya what. They’ve got the toughest job on earth,” he said.

Some 150 officers have been trained at Fort Riley to perform the duty. More than 130 soldiers and two airmen from the fort have been killed in the war.

There have been more than 4,200 U.S. military deaths from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since March 19, 2003, according to a Department of Defense Web site.

“We tell them this is probably going to be the most difficult duty they’ve ever done,” Shelkey said.

Maj. Nathan Bond concurs. A deputy public affairs officer at Fort Riley, he has broken the news three times in his 18 years in the service. While he would rather be deployed “anywhere” than do it again, Bond, 37, said it is a most necessary duty.

“It is a privilege and an honor to be that connection between a soldier and a family in the Army, but you know that when you get to that door, you’re the lasting memory for that family. They’re not going to forget that morning they got that knock on the door,” he said. “You want to make sure it’s a memory that has the appropriate dignity that reflects the life of that loved one, a memory that’s consistent with the person whose death is being announced, consistent with what we hope to be as a nation, what we hope to be as an army.”

The casualty notification officers go unannounced to the families’ homes.

“They’re the bad guy. They tell what’s happened. Then the family doesn’t see them again,” Shelkey said.

But the Army doesn’t stop there.

Casualty assistance officers are assigned to family members to answer questions or provide assistance.

Just as families will always remember being told the worst news, performing the duty of telling is difficult and memorable.

Bond’s first time was in the Chicago area in 2003. The order came in a phone message telling Bond to put on his dress uniform.

“I was so nervous to go do it, making sure I had the prepared speech ready, wanting to make sure I got it right,” he said. “Before I got there, I was imagining it being my wife and wanting to do it in a way that I would want to do it for my wife. The Golden Rule definitely applies here.”

Bond arrived at the house at 6 o’clock in the morning, and informed the mother that her 19-year-old son had been killed in Iraq. He went alone, but since then the Army has required that a chaplain attend as well.

“I wasn’t really prepared to do that,” Bond said.

He said the soldier’s mother and the mother’s husband reacted in “shock, disbelief ... probably a denial at first.”

No matter how hard one tries, the mission is delivering terrible news.

“You rattle off that delivered, practiced line. It’s a quick, initial formality that really sets the tone for the rest of the visit,” Bond said.

He was there about 15 minutes, while the mother called her daughter and a friend. He left them with a number to call a casualty assistance officer.

While he has privately wept after performing the duty, Bond said he has never lost his composure in front of families.

“I think there’s an expectation to be — number one — professional, that calm, confident person in the middle of the worst storm. That’s who I wanted to be for those families. I hope my empathy came through,” he said.

Bond tells himself it’s part of the job, but he can’t help but feel a “deep sadness” for his audience.

“If you have a heart and care about people you’re delivering this news to, it hurts, and you’re hurting for them,” he said. “I’ve got two boys of my own. They’re very young. I can only imagine how it must feel.”

The intent is to show that the Army cares about each and every soldier, “and these soldiers who have given the last full measure of devotion really do deserve this dignified treatment. When you’re an officer assigned to do that, that’s what’s foremost in your mind.”

The Army has changed for the better in his 18 years, Bond said. “We take much better care of families than we used to.”

Kenneth Murray, a Vietnam War veteran, has high praise for the Army’s response since his son’s death.

“They’ll basically do anything we ask them to. They’re wonderful people,” he said.

Army Sgt. Joel L. Murray was killed in action on 9/4/07.

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