One “Dear John Doe” Letter, and Three G’s

This is the tale of the General, the Gold Star Wife and the Girlfriend of a soldier.

The first time I spoke to a Gold Star Wife, I was extremely nervous. This lady and I had emailed back and forth several times before agreeing to talk. I had actually rehearsed my opening line a million times. I was worried I would say something stupid or insensitive. Once we got on the phone (my heart racing) I knew what I had to do. I had to can the script and tell the truth.

I'm not very good at this. I'm so sorry for your loss and I just don't really know what to say

She thanked me for that, then went on to explain that she realizes it's hard for others for exactly the same reason – they're afraid they're going to say the wrong thing. Later, I was able to meet this fantastic lady in person. So did over 300 spouses who attended SpouseBUZZ LIVE in San Diego. On the panel, Shelly discussed this very issue – how best to approach, communicate with and support the spouses of fallen heroes (she's not crazy about the term "widow"). It was a hard conversation. The tears were flowing.

You may have heard about the error that occurred when families of our fallen soldiers received "Dear John Doe" letters from the Army. The letter offered names of organizations who were there to assist the families. Yesterday afternoon, some bloggers had the opportunity to question Brig. Gen. Reuben Jones about the incident. I sat in on the call because I was interested in how the families were reacting to the situation.

I don't know BG Jones, but I could hear the agony in his voice as he repeatedly talked about this "horrible, horrible" error. I don't doubt his sincerity, either. Soldiers care about each other, and they care about each others family. When I was making my rounds at Walter Reed, soldiers would email and ask that I check on so-and-so while I was there. It was important to them.

Today, BG Jones stressed the Army's commitment to families. He mentioned that surviving spouses can remain a part of the larger Army family as long as they wish. Nah, the Army doesn't always do everything right. And when we speak of "the Army," we're really speaking of the men and women who make up the institution. Those men and women, as evidenced above, care deeply about one another. I never intended today's conversation with BG Jones to take me off the subject of the letter and in a different direction, but, as you will see, it has.

Back to our Gold Star Wife. Shelly said something very interesting when we spoke with her on SBTR. After her husband's death, she and her five children moved back home. Home wasn't anywhere near a military installation. She longed to be around her Army family again because her civilian friends and neighbors just "didn't get it." Shelly packed up her kids, headed for Ft. Benning and has been there for years now. She can't live on post, of course, but instead, she lives just outside the gate. Shelly claimed that when she and her children get to drive through the gates, "they breathe a different air." Shelly now mentors grieving families who have lost their loved ones in the line of duty. Oh, I've imagined how it might be, but I seriously doubt I'd be as strong as Shelly should I find myself in this situation, and I'm not convinced I would want to live in a military community, but Shelly would surely be my role model. Almost everything that could go wrong with the notification process (due to odd circumstances) went wrong in Shelly's case. She could be bitter, but no, she loved her Army family and she chose to stay connected to it by turning her tragedy into a way to help others.

BG Jones unknowingly reminded me of something I vowed to do, but haven't done. On the show with Shelly was Melissa. Melissa isn't a Gold Star Wife. Her boyfriend was killed before they married. Doesn't matter that they weren't married – she loved and lost a soldier. I remember Melissa saying that when Jim's unit returned from Iraq, she went to welcome them home and Jim's buddies greeted and comforted her. Reminded me of yet another moving story. BG Jones was right, the Army is a big family and we must look out for each other. Only I haven't really looked out for Melissa – albeit from a far, and in a bloggy sort of way – in a long, long while. It looks as if she's doing well. I didn't know Jim and I don't know Melissa, but my guess is that Jim would be happy to know that Melissa has not been forgotten. And my guess is that Melissa would be happy to know we haven't forgotten Jim, either.

I asked BG Jones what the reaction of the families has been to both the "Dear John Doe" letter and the apology. He said it ran the gamut. Someone made a huge error. Our Gold Star families deserve respect. Deep respect. General Jones reminded me that it's not only our responsibility and duty to do what we can for those who no longer have a loved one to squeeze on cold nights, but it's a duty that most of us want to perform to the best of our ability, even when it's awkward or hard.

Yes, extreme care should always be taken when corresponding with the families of those who gave all. Always. I feel for the families who received the letter, but I also know that it wasn't malicious. We can be outraged and we can form judgments. I think everyone cringed when they first heard of this story, I know I did. I can see myself thinking, "My husband gave his life for this country and they couldn't bother to put a name on a blankety-blank letter." But ultimately it matters most what these families feel and how they choose to respond. But I will say this, righting a wrong is often a very hard thing to do. All indications are that the Army moved swiftly to right this wrong, and I expect we'll never see a repeat of something like this.

So, if you haven't figured it out by now, the title of this post was a head-fake. This isn't really the tale of the General, the Gold Star Wife and the Girlfriend (the three G's). It's the tale of the tangled web we must weave. Tangles are very bad on the hair, but often very useful in life.

Update: BG Jones apologizes on YouTube:

About the Author


Andi is married to an active-duty soldier and is the founder and former editor of SpouseBUZZ.

She is the founder of the Annual MilBlog Conference. The MilBlog Conference is the premiere event of the year for military bloggers. President George W. Bush, U.S. Representative Adam Smith, GEN David Petraeus, LTG Mike Oates, LTG William Caldwell, RADM Mark Fox, MG Kevin Bergner, MG David Hogg and The Honorable Pete Geren have addressed previous conferences.

While living in Washington, DC, Andi was the Ambassador to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for Sew Much Comfort, a non-profit organization which makes and delivers, free of charge, special adaptive clothing for wounded service members. Andi has worked with several non-profits to help our wounded heroes and their families. She finds that work to be the most rewarding and meaningful of all.

Andi strives to find humor in the good, bad and ugly of life and is a firm believer that laughter has the ability to cure most ills.

  • Kacie

    Andi, I think you make an excellent point when you emphasize that “the Army” (or “the military”) is ultimately made up of the people in our communities, our neighborhoods…and our homes. It was a horrible, tragic mistake–but I’m certain it was a mistake. And it wasn’t made by “the Army,” it was made by a person (and those in his/her chain whose responsibility it was to review/sign those letters). This must have been horrifying for the families of the fallen soldiers, but I can’t imagine how those directly responsible for this mistake must feel, either.
    Thanks for sharing a different perspective of this situation with us…

  • Ann – AF spouse

    Back when my husband and I attended “commander school”, we had a series of “classes” known as the “day of death”. In other words, how to deal with official notification, and the family members of a fallen soldier. We were told we would have a talk with a widow. I expected an older lady like my mom.
    I was surprised to see a very young woman with young children. She was brave enough to stand there in front of us, older, wiser folks and share her story while pictures of her husband and family flashed behind her. I know I wouldn’t have that kind of courage. One statement she made was that when she lost her husband, she lost her identity as a military spouse.
    Who would I be if I lost my husband? For so many years now, everything I have been involved with as had something to do with the military. Yes I would move next to the base, and like my mom, I would be proud to have a Purple Heart license plate for my car. We’re not in the military, but we are part of the family.

  • Erin

    I’ve had experience dealing with gold star spouses and families through the Patriot Guard. I know we’ve all thought about the “what ifs” but when it comes down to supporting those folks, I don’t think they want our pity. It’s unfortunate and tragic, but I think they just want our sincerity. They’re still human, they don’t want you to think you can’t approach them. Don’t stress about what to say – offer your condolences and be a listening ear. I was fortunate to spend time with a gold star mom on the day of Wreaths Across America, the mother of HN Marc Retmier. I listened and we both talked about her son, his funeral, etc. We keep that memory alive and honor him, by talking about it. Don’t be afraid to broach the subject.

  • Andi-We need to remember what that notification comes differently.
    Say a soldier is on his way home from work, he/she lives off post. Killed on the highway, the state police would notify, that spouse would not have the “Army” there until she notified the Army then they would send out CAO.
    I know everyone gets so focused on those that die in war, but the ones who die at home deserve the same amount of “curtesy” as those who die at war.
    And what is “standard” with the Army is not so with the Army NG or the Army Reserve.