Harbingers everyone dreads to see

The IDF's casualty dep't has the task of giving families the worst news.

mourner 88 (photo credit: )
mourner 88
(photo credit: )
As the nation gathers Tuesday to remember its fallen soldiers, there are some soldiers in the IDF that most people in this country would prefer to forget - the members of the IDF's casualty department, the special unit assigned the grisly task of notifying families that their loved ones have been critically wounded or killed in action. While these soldiers might be doing one of the most important and difficult tasks in the entire army, they are the ones that everyone dreads to see at the door. "When you get to a family's house, you never know what is waiting for you," says Captain Nachum, who preferred, out of respect for the families he has met over the years, to remain anonymous. "I never got used to it. Every time I rang a doorbell it was like the first time. "The call from IDF's city officer could come at any time of the night," says Nachum, who talks in an assured and gentle tone. "Together with two or three other soldiers we would take a taxi to the house of the family. If we knew that the soldier was already dead we would also take an army doctor with just in case the reaction of the bereaved family was extreme such as fainting or a sudden heart attack." As the head of his unit, which covered the area from Rishon Lezion to Ashkelon, Nachum says he would always be the one to ring the doorbell first, introduce his business and lead his colleagues in to console the family. "I would always try to appear relaxed even if I had butterflies in my stomach," says Nachum who, now in his 60s, spent the last 15 years of his military reserve duty volunteering for the unit from which most soldiers prefer to stay well away. "A person who is not nervous to tell a family such bad news is not the right person to do this kind of a job," he says. "Many soldiers have told me that they could not have done the work I did. "It is shlichut [the work of an emissary], it's a mitzva. This work is a voluntary reserve duty not a required one, but it is a very important position, no less important than being a fighter." "My impression is that [the informing] is carried out with utmost sensitivity," says Saul Singer, whose brother Alex was killed September 15, 1987 while carrying out a special mission in Lebanon. "It is a very sensitive issue. Every time the radio reports that a soldier has been killed, the family in question has already been told the bad news. So at least other families do not have the added worry that it might be their son." Singer, who was living in the US at the time and was told of his brother's death by a state representative there, adds that it takes a special kind of person to be able to break such terrible news to a family. Nachum is definitely one such person. Exuding calm, he has the natural communication skills needed to make most people feel relaxed. In a voice tinged with sadness, he describes what he came to realize was the most common reaction to such horrifying news. "Most parents would scream or break down with tears. I would cry together with the family," he says. Once Nachum had shared the terrible news with the family, he says he would always stay around and assist them with whatever they needed. That could be anything from arrangements for the funeral to requests to see the body of the deceased soldier as a form of emotional closure. There were occasions, he says, that he would be forced to talk parents out of seeing their child's body, because of the nature of the wounds. One of the most difficult house calls Nachum remembers was when he had to notify a family their son had been badly wounded and was hospitalized in Safed. He drove the family the three hours north, but by the time they arrived at the hospital their son had passed away. "The doctors could not save him, he had lost too much blood," recalls Nachum. "The parents were really angry with me and thought I had lied to them. I explained to them that the army would not do such a thing and eventually they believed me." Nachum says a special kind of character is needed to do the job. "A lot of emotion, feeling and especially common sense are all essential qualities. The age makes a difference too. A person of 30 does not have enough life experience to do this kind of job with the same compassion as an older person." While he did not undergo any special training for his role, learning the hard way - on the job - today soldiers do participate in a special course to learn how to break such terrible news to a family. After all the sorrow he experienced during his army service, Nachum says that he still managed to keep his cool when his own three children were serving. "My son was in Lebanon but I did not worry," he says. "Sadly, in Israel, this is a fact of life. It can happen to any parent."