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Soldier's family mourns him prematurely

A call about a death in his unit made them believe their own son had

September 27, 2009|Carolyn Thompson | Thompson writes for the Associated Press.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — An Army unit is reviewing how it delivers information to families after a call to a western New York couple led them to believe that their son had been killed in combat.

Ray Jasper of Niagara Falls said that he, his wife, Robin, and their extended family spent four hours Sept. 13 mourning their son, Sgt. Jesse Jasper, before learning from his girlfriend that he was alive.

The 26-year-old soldier called his father from Afghanistan to prove it after hearing about the mix-up.

"Dad, what's going on?" Jesse Jasper asked.

"I said, 'Oh my God, you're alive; I love you, I love you, I love you; you're alive,' " Ray Jasper, 49, said later.

An Army spokesman with Jasper's unit said that officials may revise the written scripts used by volunteer liaisons to inform all families of any deaths within the unit to avoid similar misunderstandings in the future.

The nightmare started that Sunday when Ray Jasper, while on a family camping trip, got an urgent message from a family liaison from his son's unit in the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Ft. Bragg, N.C. When Jasper reached the liaison -- the wife of a soldier deployed with Jasper's son -- she told him she had a "red line message" that she needed to read to him verbatim.

"She said, 'I'm sorry to inform you that on Sept. 12, that Sgt. Juden and Sgt. Jesse Jasper were killed in Afghanistan,' " Ray Jasper recounted.

"My wife was talking to me at the time and I said, 'Say that again,' and she said the same thing over again. I couldn't do anymore. I hit the floor," he said.

Jasper knew the military's policy is to notify families in person when a soldier has been killed, but after being away all weekend, he thought that someone might have called after finding no one home.

The Jaspers were given a number to call for details, but decided that they would not dial it until making the 60-mile trip home from the Ellicottville campground and assembling other family members. As family and friends gathered, others posted condolence messages on Facebook.

Jasper's girlfriend in North Carolina saw the postings and called the Jaspers.

"She was screaming to me, 'He's not dead! He's not dead!' " Jasper said. "I said, 'How do you know this?' She said, 'I just got off the phone with him.' "

Their son called soon after.

A spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division said that Jasper's unit, through its family readiness group, notifies all families of deaths within the unit to prevent undue worry and misinformation. Maj. Brian Fickel said that callers are instructed to read from a written script to prevent misinterpretation.

In this case, families were being notified of the death of Sgt. Tyler Juden, 23, of Winfield, Kan.

Fickel said the script began: "Sgt. Tyler A. Juden . . . was killed in action while conducting combat operations in support of bravo troop 473 cav." It went on to say that Juden's family had been notified and that services would be scheduled.

"I can't speculate on how it was transmitted or how it was received," Fickel said, "but during that process the results speak for themselves. The family believed their son was killed."

The family liaison said that she was not able to read the complete message before the call to the Jaspers was terminated, according to Fickel.

"I don't know why they would tell us about someone else's tragedy," said Ray Jasper.

Fickel said the unit is considering starting the scripts with "your son or daughter is fine." Internal jargon like "red line message" will probably go, he said.

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