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AP Exclusive: Army promises survivors longer help

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    WASHINGTON — The Army is mailing out thousands of letters to survivors of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking what it can do to better help them, even years after the deaths of their loved ones.
    The Army recognizes it’s made mistakes in some of its dealings with the families of fallen soldiers, Col. Carl M. Johnson, director of the Army’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operation Center, said in an interview. And the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, encourages families to be candid in their comments and suggestions.
    About 13,500 letters have been sent this month, and copies are expected to reach about 20,000 survivors of those killed while on active duty with the Army since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — either in a war zone, in the United States or elsewhere.
    Some families may have been offended by past actions, Johnson said, and the Army wants them to know the service has learned from its mistakes, has made changes and wants to make additional improvements.
    ‘‘Some of them may have said, ’You know what, I don’t need to be a part of the Army any more because they don’t want me or they don’t know how to treat me,’’’ Johnson said. ‘‘Well, we’ve learned a lot and I think we’ve improved a lot and this is a way to reconnect with them.’’
    The Army has made a significant shift and is now committed to providing services to survivors not just in the immediate period after soldiers’ deaths but for as long as the families want the help, he said.
    The letter came as a surprise to Judy Faunce, whose son, Capt. Brian Faunce, 28, was electrocuted in 2003 in Iraq while he was in a Bradley fighting vehicle. Faunce, whose son was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Bensalem, Pa., said it had been years since she’d heard from the Army.
    While she said she had had a very positive experience working with the Army personnel assigned to help after her son’s death, she said she still had not received answers to some questions submitted related to the death. Also, she said she thinks there was a factual error in the initial report from the Defense Department related to the circumstances of her son’s death and she’d like to get information about how to get that corrected.
    ‘‘I think it’s wonderful that they’re going to reach out and offer assistance to families that may need it ... but I really never expected anything from the Army, so getting this letter was a surprise,’’ said Faunce, who lives in Ocean, N.J.
    The letter informs families that meetings will take place with survivors over the next several weeks at military installations and that they will be receiving additional information about how to attend.
    ‘‘Please be candid in your conversations with our staff, as your comments and concerns are important to us,’’ says the letter, which was dated Aug. 5. It is signed by Gen. Reuben D. Jones, the Army’s adjutant general.
    Following complaints from families, the military has made several changes in how it works with them after a soldier’s death. For example, more assistance is provided not just to soldiers’ spouses, if they are married, but to soldiers’ parents as well.
    About six months after a death, the Army also sends a questionnaire to family members asking what it did right and wrong.
    In 2006, the Army created a long-term case management office tasked with answering questions about how to file Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain records about a soldier’s death and with assisting with other matters. Johnson said the effort has grown from having just a few people answering the phone to an Army-wide effort to be more accommodating to survivors over a longer term.
    Although the letters went out to families of Army soldiers killed in recent years, Johnson said survivors of those who served in other military branches or during an earlier era can also reach out to them for help.
    The letter says, ‘‘We understand the sacrifices you and your family have made in service to this nation and we want to assure you the Army is here to provide you the support you need, for as long as you desire.’’

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