Should we allow Facebook access for actively serving military personnel?

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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