Marines Drop Dress Blues for Death Notifications

A Matter Of Image – Wearing of dress blues barred on casualty notification calls (Marine Corps Times, Feb. 28, p. 08)

Casualty assistance officers will no longer wear the dress blue uniform when notifying families of a Marine’s death under a recent change to Corps policy. Marines making death notifications instead will now wear the service ‘A’ uniform, a move intended to curb what officials said was a growing negative view of Marines wearing the dress uniform while performing such grim duty.

The change, included in a Feb. 9 Corpswide message outlining adjustments to the service’s casualty procedures, has already divided many Marines and spouses. Some are saying the change is not significant, while others believe the Corps is choosing image over the sanctity of dress blues, the most iconic of Marine uniforms. “A negative connotation has been attached to Marines in the dress blue uniform because of death notifications,” according to the message, MarAdmin 057/05. “This is contrary to the pride and tradition of the dress blue uniform.” Dress blues will continue to be worn for ceremonial events during the casualty assistance process, including burial, the message states.

The change infuriated one spouse. If her husband was killed, she said, she would be extremely upset to receive notice from someone who wasn’t in his finest. “I would be completely, totally offended,” said the spouse, who asked that she not be named. Putting casualty assistance officers in service alphas minimizes the Marine’s sacrifice and makes death notification an “everyday event,” she said. “That means that my husband is not worth as much as the service members who died two years ago,” she said.

[…]

Marine Corps officials declined to discuss the matter in detail but issued a statement through a spokesman saying the change was in response to concerns from casualty assistance officers and others. “Over the last year, the casualty assistance office had received feedback from CACOs and others in the fleet revealing that when spouses or the public see Marines in the dress blue uniform, they have begun to believe the Marines are there to deliver tragic news,” Bryan Driver, a spokesman for Marine Corps Community Services at Quantico, Va., said in a written statement.

There’s no winning with an issue like this. My gut tells me the Corps is right on this one: It makes no sense to create a panic on base every time Dress Blues are seen. The Service uniform is worn with sufficient regularity that such an association is unlikely.

The father of an infantry lance corporal deployed to Iraq said he believes the service alphas are most appropriate for death notification, because he associates dress blues with festive occasions. “My own opinion was, I was terrified of seeing an officer in dress blues,” Dennis Anderson, of Palmdale, Calif., said via e-mail. “There is terror in looking at that splendid blue and red uniform and this signifying that awful fact that you will never see your child again. The memory of that blue uniform, indelible.”

Several participants in an online forum for military spouses, www.cinchouse.com, posted comments on the matter Feb. 17. One said she equated a Marine making a death notification in service alphas to a funeral director showing up in a sweat suit. “Just seems appropriate to go the extra distance when delivering such grave news,” she wrote. “I dunno, maybe I expect too much.”

Service alphas are quite dressy, hardly akin to a sweat suit. The uniforms in question:

Marine Corps officers' Service 'A' Uniform Marine Corps officers' Dress Blue Uniform

Still, this is obviously an emotional issue. People unaffiliated with the military have trouble understanding the strong feelings people have about such things. See, for example, the outcry over the Army’s switch to the black beret.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ken says:

    When the marines stop wearing their fancy pants at the tomb of the unkown soldier they can stop wearing them when visiting the families of the dead they know.

  2. Michael says:

    Wow! I don’t know about this issue before, or that Marines wore different uniforms for such things.

    In any case, I’d hate to have to have been the person to make the decision to change the policy. I agree, James. There’s no winning this one.

  3. Boyd says:

    Ken, the Army guards the Tomb of the Unknowns, not the Marine Corps.

    And if my son, who is a Marine, dies while on active duty, I’ll have much bigger concerns than whether the CACO wears dress blues. Although that call will go to his wife, not to me, but the principle stands.

  4. What are the boatcloak and trenchcoat uniforms used for? Just curious – haven’t seen those ones at all.

    I have to agree that this is a lose-lose, though the other uniform is pretty sharp looking – just not as sharp as the Dress Blues.

  5. James Joyner says:

    The trenchcoat is just cold weather garb over the service uniforms. I’ve never seen the boatcloak before that picture. I’m guessing it’s worn during sea duty, though.

  6. JakeV says:

    I think Boyd’s point is a good one. The angry spouse quoted here notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine the level of dressiness among the notifiers will be a primary concern for bereaved family members.

  7. htom says:

    Lose-lose. The only way you win pandering to idiots is if you’re selling junk, and that is not at all what the Corps is about.

  8. Tom Carter says:

    Interesting. I don’t think it matters that much what the Marines wear during this very difficult duty. I think the “A” is probably more appropriate, given the somber nature of what they’re doing. I was briefly assigned this duty at one point, but fortunately never had to perform it. It’s a nightmare.

    In my 30 years in the Army, I went through a lot of these uniform dust-ups. As a pilot, I always found it frustrating that to start with, flight suits were allowed only in very limited circumstances because they looked, well, different from normal fatigues (now BDUs). Then a nomex flight suit was developed to keep us from burning to death, but the first ones had to be designed as two-piece outfits that would look as much like fatigues as possible. Uncomfortable and silly, but at least they served the purpose. Now, life as an aviator in the Army is a lot more reasonable on such issues.

    The fact is, Army leadership has always been suspicious of anything or anyone who looked or acted as though he were outside the mainstream. Out-of-the-box thinkers like the special operations types, in particular, have always had a hard time.

  9. Larry says:

    I understand the concern of the Marines about a negitive asapect of the the Dress Blues used for Death notification. However either uniform is approrate. The CAO shold have some leeway in which uniform would be approrate. Realisticly which ever uniform is used, the public will associate it with the negitive aspect of the notification. Marine wear the Blues for funeral service, how will the family associate the uniform with that?

  10. Boyd says:

    The boatcloak is merely a ceremonial part of the uniform, based on a functional predecessor. The Navy has boatcloaks as well, and I only saw one ever worn, and that for a Navy Day Ball.

    Virtually no one has a boatcloak because they’re not required, don’t serve much of a purpose, and cost $600.00.

  11. Cousin Dave says:

    Hmm. I had always assumed that the wearing of the dress uniform was a sign of respect for the family of the deceased. I’m afraid I have to disagree with this change. Although, as others have said, if it was me getting that visit, very soon the uniform of the person visiting me would be the least of my concerns.

  12. John says:

    A different uniform, used exclusively for occasions that do, necessarily, focus on death could be considered. There would be no ambiguity, no mistaken perceptions.

    Wearing it wouldn’t have to be restricted to death notifications, though. They could also be worn at the appropriate public occasions such as Veteran’s Day, the funerals of service members, guards of honor for state funerals, and the like.

    The would certainly add to the cost of the military, but sometimes clarity is worth paying a price.

  13. JohnnyV says:

    Maybe a grim reaper uniform?

    It’s a bad idea, and the dress blues are meant for serious matters, not “festive” ones. Unless your birthday balls are more about dancing the macarena at your unit.

    As many have said, the uniform is the least of concerns. So why change it? There are other issues with the CAO than this.

  14. Ed W says:

    I truley do not think the general public is that ignorant. I challenge anyone to regard my “Dress” uniform as anything other than formal attire. Maybe they have never been to a Marine wedding, a Marine Corps Ball. I never recieved anything but good cheer while I stode the local malls and organizations collecting “Toys for Tots” last December. As far as replacing it with “Alphas” I am sure the same will be said of them, as you are more likely to see the Blues than the Service A.