Army Sends 'Dear John Doe' Letters to Families of Fallen Troops

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Army mistakenly sent letters addressed "Dear John Doe" to 7,000 family members of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, unleashing calls from troubled relatives and prompting a formal apology yesterday from the Army's top general.

"The indication that anyone would perceive that a hero is not significant, that they would not direct this personally to them, is shattering," said Merrilee Carlson, whose son, Sgt. Michael Carlson, died in Baqubah, Iraq, on Jan. 24, 2005. "While it's a simple mistake, it's a very tragic mistake," said Carlson, who learned of the letter from other families and expected to receive one yesterday.

The letters, mailed late last month by the Army's Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operation Center in Alexandria, contained information about private organizations that assist families of the fallen. But in what the Army called a printing error by a contractor, the letters did not contain specific names and addresses; instead, they had the placeholder greeting "Dear John Doe."

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. is sending a personal apology letter to the 7,000 family members, Army spokesman Paul Boyce said yesterday. "Obviously, this is insensitive, and we wanted to apologize," said Boyce, adding that the Army became aware of what he called the "glitch" when several families began contacting the service in recent days.

"There are no words to adequately apologize for this mistake or for the hurt it may have caused," Brig. Gen. Reuben D. Jones, the Army adjutant general, wrote yesterday in a statement.

At the same time, he said, "it is important the original intent of the letter is not lost. The organizations mentioned are dedicated to honoring loved ones and recognizing their sacrifice and commitment."

Carlson said she is contacting other Army Gold Star mothers -- a designation for mothers of troops who died in military service -- to warn them about the letter and explain that it was a mistake. "The Army treasures its heroes, and they will work hard to make sure it never happens again," said Carlson, president of Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, a Washington-based nonprofit coalition that includes family members of fallen troops and supports the mission of building democracy in the Middle East.

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