Emotional front line of US war in Iraq

(l-r) Marine First Staff Sgt Chad Bilyeu with Tammy and Steven Delle
Chad Bilyeu had to break the worst possible news to Mr and Mrs Delle
Nashville, Tennessee, is the cradle of country music, home of doleful ballads about love, faith and sacrifice.

Here, as elsewhere in the US, people worry about Iraq.

But unless they have sons or daughters serving there, most of them remain emotionally detached - and they never have to think about what the arrival of a marine in a white van means.

Marine First Staff Sergeant Chad Bilyeu is a delivery man of sorts. But with a knock on the door, what he delivers is the worst kind of news.

As a casualty information officer for the 3rd Battalion of the US Marine Corps, based in Nashville, he has the task of telling families that their son or daughter, brother or sister, has died.

He has now made 11 personal visits of this kind - one of them, a little over a year ago, to Tammy and Steven Delle.


The Delles live just outside Nashville, in a middle-class neighbourhood where patriotism can be measured by the height of the flagpoles.

Tammy's 20-year-old son David Bass, a marine corporal, had been in Iraq for six weeks on his first tour when Staff Sgt Bilyeu's white van pulled up outside the house at 1100 one day.

"When we show up in our vehicle and knock on this door, they know that it's not good news," says Staff Sgt Bilyeu.

Tammy was summoned downstairs. "When I came down there were three marines standing right there," she says, describing the moment a year later with tears in her eyes.

She knew immediately that it meant her son was dead, she says.

"I felt that somehow if I could go back up the stairs I could make it not be true."

Staff Sgt Bilyeu, a reserve officer, says: "Coming in and telling that news is definitely hard. I think it's the least that I can do for him and his family - and hopefully give that family some closure."

Since that first visit, he has also provided much-needed emotional and practical support to the family, becoming almost like a surrogate son in the process.

"I cannot imagine why anybody would want to do that job but I'm very grateful that he did and that someone with such compassion is doing that job," says Tammy.

"How these marines are so tough and they have to be able to do things that the rest of us can't imagine doing and then when they're here telling me my son died, they are so gentle."

'Care for their hearts'

Preparation for the role of casualty notification and casualty assistance officers starts with a sobering lecture in the cold light of a conference room.

Marines salute fallen comrades, Camp Pendleton (file picture)
More than 3,500 US troops have died since the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Michelle Spark, with the Army Reserve's 99th Regional Readiness Command, tells a room full of trainees: "To be honest with you there isn't going to be enough training and there is no training that will actually prepare you to do the duty of casualty notification."

Reserve officers are briefed on the protocol of the process, which includes the requirement that the rank of the messenger be higher than that of the casualty.

They are also instructed to act as naturally as they can and to try to memorise the details of the casualty and how they died, so that they do not have to refer to their notes.

"Treat the family as you would like your family treated, and give them your full attention," Ms Spark says.

"There is more to being a good casualty assistance officer than the paperwork - take care of their hearts."

But there is no manual for the emotional front line of this war.

'No easier'

Back at the Delles's home, the living room has become a shrine to David. His uniform is on display and so is the flag that was draped over his coffin.

It is an austere room cluttered with memories and with symbols of David's dream, to serve as a marine.

With more than 3,500 US troops killed in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, according to Pentagon figures, it is a scene that is repeated in many homes across the country.

Staff Sgt Bilyeu, who has three young sons himself, says he believes his task is getting harder the more times he has to do it.

"When you are telling them the worst news they can possibly imagine, it takes a grind on you," he says. "It just does not get easier."

Beyond the bitter debate about this war, sons and daughters continue to die, families to grieve - and the officers delivering the bad news have many more miles to clock up.