WASHINGTON — The Army issued a formal apology to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan after it sent them letters with the salutation "Dear John Doe."
In December, the Army sent out 7,000 letters to the families of most of the 3,544 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 containing information about services or gifts for which they might be eligible.
Although the envelopes were properly addressed, a software problem resulted in an error that printed the salutation "Dear John Doe" at the top of the letters, which were printed by a private contractor.
J. Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said the service had not received any angry complaints, but several families called to alert the military to the error. That prompted an investigation.
"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's adjutant general, said in a statement.
In addition to the apology, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's chief of staff, is sending the families a new letter explaining the error.
Bonnie Brown of Troy, Ala., whose son John E. Brown was killed in Iraq on April 14, 2003, said she received a copy of the erroneous letter this week. She said she found the salutation odd but not offensive.
"I did notice it said, 'Dear John Doe,' " she said. "But it didn't really bother me. I didn't think too much about it."
The incident sparked a debate among some veterans groups about how well the Army was supporting the families of soldiers killed in action.
Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the greeting was an "unfortunate mistake." But he applauded the military's efforts to stay in touch with families.
"It is embarrassing," he said. "But it's very good that they are trying to reach out to families to say the Army is there to support you."
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was less forgiving, arguing that the Army needed to do more to support military families.
Rieckhoff said that after the controversy generated by the disclosure that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld used a robotic pen to sign casualty letters, the military should take extra care when communicating with the families of fallen troops.
"How much does it take to proofread letters?" Rieckhoff asked. "You have to remember the amount of hurt the families are going through."
The Army declined to release the name of the California company that printed the letters, insisting the responsibility for preventing the error was the military's alone.
"We take full responsibility," Boyce said.
Military officials did not immediately respond to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the name of the company.