Josh Babigan was heading home from the gym one evening this month when he got the call from his commander. Contact the Casualty Assistance Office, you're needed to conduct a notification.
"Notification of what?" asked Babigan, 25, who lives in Springfield and works as a military policeman at Fort Myer in Arlington.
Ninety minutes later, 1st Lt. Babigan, clad in his Class A dress uniform and accompanied by a military chaplain, stood at the doorway of a family's house.
"I was extremely nervous," he recalls. "Scared. I had my little speech I needed to give, had it memorized. And right away, the dad answered and said, 'I already know why you're here.' "
Babigan had been summoned to casualty notification duty before, but those cases were different -- telling families that the military had found dog tags and teeth from a World War II bombing in New Guinea, for example. In that sort of case, the notification officer brings relief, closure.
Nothing is as raw as the ultimate notification -- a soldier killed in combat. Army policy, which years ago was to hand over a telegram, has become more personal: An officer is to deliver the message in person within four hours after learning of the casualty.
Babigan entered the house and immediately saw the mother on the floor, collapsed in grief, distraught.
"At that point, the whole speech I'd memorized just went out the window," he says. The mother asked how her son had died. Babigan looked to the chaplain, who told him to be "very blunt and very specific."
Notification officers learn the drill in a single, four-hour class. The Army, which prides itself on being prepared for just about anything, offers training videos on "Notifying Emotional Next of Kin" (8 minutes) and "Notifying Hostile Next of Kin" (6 minutes).
There's a script officers follow: "The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your (relationship; son, Robert or husband, Edward; etc.) was killed in action in (country) on (date). (State the circumstances provided by the Casualty Area Command.) The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss."
And then there's the reality of standing in someone's foyer and telling parents that their son is gone.
"I felt I was intruding on something very personal," Babigan says. He had taken a minute before heading over to the house to punch the fallen soldier's name into a computer, and what he read could easily have been his own story: Junior ROTC in high school, ROTC in college, a fellow platoon leader. "It made it too personal."
Babigan and the chaplain stayed about a half-hour, Josh standing quietly as the chaplain spoke to the parents. "I was kind of at a loss for words," Babigan recalls. He answered the mother's questions, and they left.
"I don't know if I brought comfort or more hardship, because he was about my age, on the verge of being a first lieutenant," Babigan says. Perhaps his very presence was too vivid a reminder of what the family had just lost.
The Army limits notification officers to a single contact with the grieving family. Casualty assistance officers follow the next day, offering help with everything from funeral arrangements to benefits. But Babigan can't get the family out of his mind; he plans to attend the funeral.
Even now, several days later, Babigan looks like someone who has lost a close friend. He went home that night and called his parents; they talked for two hours, and Babigan stayed up all night talking it through with friends.
After ROTC and nearly three years in the Army, Babigan didn't really see what war is until he completed his duty that evening. That night, he told his mother, "I do not want to go over there and put you through what I saw this family go through."
His mother replied, "Josh, that's your job."
Now, Babigan says he's prepared to go to Iraq if the Army sends him, but with a new sense of the impact war has on everyone it touches.
Babigan had always assumed he would enlist. On his mother's side, someone has served in the U.S. Army in every generation since the Revolution. "It's structure, it's organization," he says, and his voice perks up.
But he's not about to volunteer for another notification call. "The instant you knock on that door, you change a family forever," he says. "And I'm changed forever."