About two weeks ago, Maj. Kathi Blevins, a short, brown-haired woman who works at Bolling Air Force Base, was deeply shaken by a note from her commander. It informed her that she had been designated as one of the base's 12 Casualty Notification Officers.
She was given a briefing, a copy of Air Force Pamphlet 30-8 -- the "Casualty Notification Guide," which advises among other things that, "When making a notification, try to convey, in every action and deed, the sincere concern of the Air Force for the feelings of the NOK." NOK stands for next-of-kin.
Much has been made of the virtuosity of allied air action in the Mideast, the few casualties, the Star Warsy quality of it. But now, in a small office at Bolling, Maj. Blevins fidgets and gazes at the floor, reduced it seems to merely a worried human being, a 36-year-old mother of two who suddenly finds herself heading into the very tent of Brutus, in the nightmarish storm center produced by 20th-century technological horror.
"I have almost no experience with death, that's why it bothers me so much," she says softly. "First I have to find the address, then I have to go knock on the door and introduce myself. I have to find out for sure who they are. 'Are you Mr. So-and-so? Do you have a son or daughter named So-and-so?' Then when you're inside, you're supposed to give a statement, but don't make it sound as if you're reading off a form. 'On behalf of General So-and-so, commander of the Air Force District of Washington at Bolling Air Force Base, it is with deep sympathy that I regret to inform you of the death of your son or daughter.' It's very short and to the point."
Her voice trails off. This is very difficult, she's never done anything even remotely like this. There are several other details to explain, but for the moment she is struggling with her feelings, just from recounting this. Just from thinking about it.
She looks up and crosses her arms over her chest. On the big television set in the corner of her office, the war news on CNN is blinking silently. She looks at it for a while, silently. Dhahran has just come under missile attack and she has a brother-in-law in Dhahran, got there just a week before the war, a nurse. Guard outfit down in Tennessee, MASH unit.
She comes back to herself.
"I'm worried about how I'll do," she admits. "I don't know what my reaction will be when I walk to the door. I worry if I'll break down in front of these people. It would not be good to do that. I guess you just don't know what you'll do till you do it. One thing surprised me in the briefing, you're not supposed to touch the individual. My eyes tear up when my little boy hurts his finger. It would be hard to hold back and not try to comfort them in some way."
She ponders this a little, then decides to venture into a bit of the more mysterious terrain of the psyche. "I used to not get choked up when bad things happened to people. When bad things happened, I didn't used to tear up and cry. But the last five years or so I've started to do that. I wonder if it has to do with age. As I've grown older, it's started. Or like when you watch your kid walk across the stage at school, now I get all choked up at that, and before I didn't think anything of it."
Who knows why this is? Certainly Blevins, in her Air Force uniform of varying shades of blue, looks quite somber now, during this interview in her small military office. For company she has the TV and a few awards and pictures on the wall, including a drawing of the Statue of Liberty with the words, "Freedom Isn't Free: POWs/MIAs."
"Now we just see it on TV," she notes, "we see the numbers. But when you're forced to deal with it personally, it really brings it home." She's sort of hoping that she'll be able to freeze up emotionally for a while just to get through it. "I'm hoping it'll be very much like an emergency. One time my son cut his head, and I just went into action. I had his head down and bandaged it and dealt with it. It wasn't until later I cried. I'm hoping I can hold it all in till I'm driving back to the office or something."
Blevins, born in Mississippi one of five children of an Air Force career enlisted man, has had a relatively comfortable career so far, 14 years in with 12 of them in public affairs jobs at bases around the country (she's Bolling's PAO today, her main duty). After college, she'd been a public school phys. ed. teacher but wasn't meeting many men that way and decided to try the service. Sure enough, when she was the deputy PAO at a Minuteman missile site near Cheyenne, Wyo. -- her first officer duty -- Robert Blevins, an Air Force meteorologist, had to walk down the hall past her office to get to the water cooler. They married in 1979, managed to keep getting duty near one another over the years, and now live in suburban Virginia with their 10-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. Robert is also an Air Force major based here.
In the weeks since receiving her additional duties as a Casualty Notification Officer, Blevins has studied and studied the details of the assignment until she's sure she has mastered them. Be "sensitive, courteous, sympathetic and helpful," as Pamphlet 30-8 advises. "Being prepared, sincere and alert to the needs of the NOK at the time of notification will reduce some of the shock that is normal under these circumstances. Stereotyped procedures are discouraged."
But don't touch. Don't speculate. Be direct. Just do the job, and get out. In most cases, Blevins explains, the Casualty Notification Officer is accompanied by an Air Force chaplain who is trained to provide spiritual and emotional support. And in some cases an Air Force physician comes along -- in cases where the NOK is elderly or in poor health and likely to break down under the stress of notification.
All these things are fairly clear. What isn't clear in Blevins's mind is what actually is going to happen between herself, a human being, and these other human beings she is going to meet face to face as she conveys the news to them that will change their lives and the state of the nation and the color of the stars and the shape of the cosmos and the face of God.
She wonders about this, and wonders.
"Maybe even though I can't touch them," she says, "I can say something to comfort them somehow. I don't know what it will be."