Should we allow Facebook access for actively serving military personnel?

Should we allow Facebook access for actively serving military personnel?

Summary: The wife of an active-duty soldier learned of his death, not through the military's very carefully thought-out death-notification procedure, but over Facebook.


A few days ago, we became aware of a very sad story. The wife of an active-duty soldier learned of his death, not through the military's very carefully thought-out death-notification procedure, but over Facebook.

CBS News: Wife of Fort Carson soldier learns of his death on Facebook

Death is a fact of life in the military, as it is in other very dangerous jobs, like police work or fire fighting. All of these organizations have developed a notification procedure that needs to accomplish a number of goals.

First, it needs to communicate the news in a respectful manner, in keeping with the magnitude of the notification. Next, it provides people on-hand for those crucial first minutes when a family learns of a loved one's loss, in order to both keep the situation under control and safeguard other family members. Third, it's designed to create a memory, so when family members think back over the years, their impression is one that, while deeply sad, is also one of dignity.

When this soldier's wife learned about her husband's death over Facebook, she had to experience it in a completely uncontrolled environment. A fellow soldier, also serving in Afghanistan, informed the wife directly, via a Facebook instant message and then a voice conversation. About two hours later, the military notification team arrived at the family's home.

ZDNet's Friending Facebook columnist Emil Protalinski and I debated whether we should even cover this story, because it was yet another sensationalistic Facebook story.

We eventually decided we'd each cover it according to our "beat" -- he'd cover it as a Facebook story and I'd cover it as a government story. Here's Emil's piece, which provides details on the actual situation, which I won't be discussing.

See also: Soldier’s wife learns of his death via Facebook

On one hand, it's another sensationalistic story. On the other hand, it's part of the changing world that's Facebook, social media, and the military.

I originally chose not to write this on Gov because I know families are thrilled to have access to their loved-one soldiers via social media. I started off by thinking I'd have to say that this is another reason to block social media from the warfront -- and I just didn't want to say that in this context.

Facebook is changing everything, including death notifications.

The military has a very solemn, dignified way of notifying next-to-kin, but they need the time to make that happen -- even if only the travel time to the spouse or loved one for the notification team. But Facebook is instant, so there's no way for DoD to have responded faster. It's the curse of openness vs. propriety.

There was a time, of course, when soldiers could only talk to home via snail mail letters (censored, of course) and the rare phone call. While this was hard on families and those serving, it did manage to help preserve operational security.

But as the global Internet has proliferated, even into war zones, families are able to stay more connected to their loved ones over IM, Skype, email, and the various social networks. OpSec was still observed in the most mission-critical cases, but otherwise, Internet family communications made for happier soldiers and happier families, especially in recent times, as tours of duty have been extended and extended again.

American soldiers are among the most disciplined and well-trained professionals in the world. Most of them, when instructed on a policy or procedure, can be counted on following that policy or procedure. After all, we trust them with billions of dollars of gear and really dangerous weapons, so we certainly should be able to trust them to follow orders.

Those orders extend to family communications.

Soldiers know what they can and can't tell their families. Many soldiers talk to their families regularly, but sometimes the folks back home don't know where in the world their loved one is deployed. That's because our troops know what they can say, and when to keep quiet -- even when it comes to family.

In this recent Fort Carson case, something went wrong. At this point, it's not clear if the soldier who told the wife about her husband's death had been properly instructed in how to handle that situation. If the woman in the husband's platoon violated standing orders about death notification and decided to notify the wife herself, then she'll be subject to possible court martial procedures.

So this brings us back to the original question: should we allow social network and Internet access for actively serving military personnel? A corollary to that is whether an incident like this is justification to cut off social network and Internet access for our serving troops?

My answer, carefully thought out, is "yes" and "no". Yes, we should allow social network and Internet access for our troops, and no, this incident does not justify cutting our troops off from their families.

The reason is simple: trust. Fundamentally, the entire military structure of the United States of America runs on one thing: trust. We train and we trust. If we can't trust our troops to know right and wrong when it comes to what to say when talking to home, then we can't trust our troops to know right and wrong in far more dire situations.

And we must trust, for to have a military without trust is to merely have armed chaos. Sure, from time-to-time things go wrong. Some soldiers misinterpret training messages, friendly fire kills in the fog of war, some troops suffer under psychological trauma that results in trouble of varying degrees.

Even so, we must trust our troops. Our military has long turned mistakes into opportunities for additional training, and this Facebook incident is one of those areas where additional training may be needed.

The fact is, while our soldiers are the best in the world, they've also been fighting this war for a long time, stop-lossed over and over. Every opportunity we can give them to keep in touch with their families will help them during their long terms of duty.

Our condolences go out to the family of Staff Sgt. Christopher Brown. He had served twice in Iraq and was on his second deployment to Afghanistan. This time, he had been in-country for only a week before he was killed. He was the recipient of a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and an Army Commendation Medal.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Networking


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Has nothing to do with Facebook. Might as well ban the telegraph.

    The mode of communication is irrelevant, this situation has happened before and it will happen again. The protocol in use today relies on people to follow it, not on technology to manage it. Facebook, email, cellphones and other technologies have made conditions for troops and their families more bearable in many respects, and it would be foolish and demoralizing to consider banning any of it.

    You use the word "trust" where I would have used the word "discipline." I don't "trust" an 18-year-old private to do the right thing unless I know he has had the training and supervision that instills discipline into his actions and character, and makes "trust" possible.
    terry flores
    • Ultimately, though, doesn't it come down to trust?

      Once you're done training and supervising and instilling discipline and building character, isn't that all about trust? Ultimately, doesn't it all, really, come down to trust?
      David Gewirtz
      • What about telephones?

        A lot of military wives, including some who don't use Facebook, have telephones. And they use them. Like mad. And except for classified missions, soldiers on TDY (temporary duty) away from their home bases can talk with their wives and kids, and do. Trust me: the military's gossip grapevine is second to none. If somebody dies or gets hurt, the whole unit knows it in minutes. It has not been uncommon for many decades for the death notification team to get to a family housing unit and find the bereaved wife surrounded by other wives comforting her.
  • Send gift to Bangladesh
    • Yeah, right!

      I just sent a gift to my local liquor store. I bought a bunch of whiskey. Sorry. Bad luck for you.
  • A little bit of reporter's investigation would help you here

    The military has clear procedures and policies to help prevent this.
    [ul][*]When a soldiers death occurs, there is an internet black-out that occurs for that base until family is notified. And believe me, when you hear of an attack on your son's base, waiting for that blackout to be lifted so that you can get a confirmation from him that he is ok can be interminable. However, many personal buy their own internet access. There are companies that sell portable satellite transceivers with internet access for military personnel for less than $100. Army cannot block that communication.
    [*]Yes, you can be absolutely sure military personnel are trained in this area, extensively. However, even in the military, not everyone acts appropriately in the heat of an emotional devastating event.
    This is not the first time this has happened; I distinctly remember 2 other occasions and I'm sure many more that I have not heard of. It may be the first time that Facebook was involved which is making this a bigger news story. In my opinion, the military has got their policies and procedures exactly right. This is just an unfortunate and insensitive incident of a lack of following orders by one distraught soldier, nothing more, nothing less.
  • Human Error Endures

    Long ago (very but don't ask more) as a ground pounder Marine there were often delays in getting snail mail. Our military tried real hard to get it to the troops but movement, equipment failures don't help. It really is very important to communicate with home as you are often is a strange place wondering who death will take next. Today's world of instant communication would have been a dream. Regardless of even being heartbreaking at times (mom's cooking vs. c-rat? 99% of moms win) moral goes way up with home communications.

    I agree, keep it going. If the soldier in question disobeyed orders, it will cost him some pay, a stripe or whatever. Human error happens and as a soldier we are held accountable for the screw up. No reason to punish the rest by going back to snail mail.
  • trusting the government on death matters

    with all the issues that the government has had around anything relating to war deaths, trusting them to react properly is always hard. Miss-marked graves in Arlington cemetery, miss-marked coffins, notifying the wrong families, they dont have a spotless record on this.
  • That is the wrong question.

    Should be phrased as what the DOD wants as a matter of security. They will figure out that facebook and other social sites are off limits the same way that looking at wikileaks docs have been. It's all about control of the little minds.
    • I don't see it

      As a "military brat" and as somebody who has been in contact with others in the DoD, I don't see this "control of the little minds" attitude in any of the military personnel or in any DoD employee I've ever met.

      Sorry, but maybe it's time to take off that tin foil hat and conspiracy theories and give them a little respect. We ask a lot of our military, and they do some of the most dangerous work in the world. Is it really too much to ask to give them the benefit of the doubt, and not to jump into conspiracy theories?
    • Little Minds?

      Just remember that those "little minds" is what keeps this country safe and you from harm. Those "little minds" are well trained professionals that put up with a lot of crap from both military and civilian....
  • It's just about control

    Every day people hear about loved ones dying without any support team!! I would much prefer to hear of my husbands death from one of the people close to him over there one on one through facebook then from some military team here trained to control things around my reaction. It would actually be far more compassionate and a better long term memory than seeing the cars with the guys in dress uniforms show up at my house when the minute you see them you already know what they are about to say.
  • Facebook and our Warriors

    As long as their superiors on the ground with them feel there is no risk to security and there are rules laid out to prevent what families such as the young woman mentioned above found out over Facebook or any other social site then I say heck yes. They are over there risking life and limb to battle the enemy and this gives them one more way of staying connected with their families (which in my humble opinion) could only boost the moral of our service men/women who are serving multiple tours in a war zone and have no other real connection with their families.
  • weighing in with prior experience

    As retired military 24 years. I have to put my 2cents worth in. Similar problems occurred as far back as 1971 when I was in Vietnam. the only thing different is the medium used by those inconsiderate individuals to bypass established protocol. When My NCOIC at Pleiku died one of the guys called his wife on the MARS ham radio that night and his wife notified the Deceased's family before they received official notification through channels. Don't blame the medium used for bad judgement. It could have been a cell phone call just as well.
  • Another case of getting the milk and not buying the cow....

    The military wants to keep these kids on a digital chain via smart phones and other technology so they are going to have to take the short end of the stick on this issue.

    Makes me feel old. I remember a time when all you had as a grunt was cloth between you and the enemy (no body armour) , no night vision (except for the CIA spooks) and the leavings of Korea and WWII for tents, C rations, K rations and leather shoes etc. that would rot off your feet in a week. I feel like revolutionary war veteran :).
  • Facebook is the norm now...

    This story is a sad one, but the messenger, not the method of delivery, is at fault.
  • "Should We Allow"

    As a soldier, I am going to disregard everything in your article except for the one germane point, where you said "Should We Allow . . .".

    Who do you think you are? Obama? You're talking about American soldiers, not Soviet conscripts. Do you truly want to cross the line and give soldiers cause to demand the same rights all other Americans have?

    If soldiers were to impose standards and say "Civilians do stupid stuff all the time, so should we allow civilians . . .", would you comply?

    Of course, I understand that you have to sell stories, so as other "journalists" tend to do, the easy method is to generate attention-grabbing headlines, even when the story is absolute bunk.

    Think about the short and long-term consequences of your activities for once.
    • I'm a lifelong civilian, but... father served and I have two sons serving now, and on the whole, if one of my sons were to be injured or killed while on duty, I'd rather first hear about it through official channels than the rumor mill.
      John L. Ries
    • I served and I have to say....

      390th SMW.

      I have to question your being a soldier because when I was serving we had no illusions to having 'rights'.

      Granted that was 30 years ago and I served mostly with Air Force enlistees who were avoiding being ground pounders in Nam, so many things may have changed since then.

      I find it hard to believe things have changed so much that a troop would have the illusion of having rights, though.

      • Rights

        Believe me when I say, today, military personnel don't have near the rights that a civilian does. Being in the military is like living in communist Russia, they have control of every aspect of your life, even your bodily fluids....

        USAF Retired