SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – A few miles outside a small town in Illinois' farm country, the chaplain driving Capt. Jon Cape to one of the toughest assignments of the young officer's career pulled the car over to pray.
Cape made a simple request of God: To grant him courage as he knocked on the door of the military wife who was about to learn she was a new widow.
She answered the door. And he began, "The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deepest regret. ..."
"She didn't believe it; she was kind of in shock, didn't think it was happening to her," said Cape, an Iraq war veteran and Illinois National Guardsman. "Of course, (she was) going through the denial phase — No this isn't happening. Are you sure, are you positive...?"
Cape, 28, learned about such reactions months before in a training session.
That training is part of the National Guard's new push in at least a dozen states to prepare more soldiers to deliver the news that a soldier died and to help the family in the months afterward. More soldiers are being killed with the heavy demand on guard units fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there are plans to send more troops to increasingly dangerous Afghanistan this year.
Since combat began in Afghanistan in late 2001, 85 National Guard soldiers have been killed there, including 12 from Illinois. All but one were members of the state's 33rd Infantry Brigade, whose nearly 3,000 soldiers have been in Afghanistan since last fall. In Iraq, 436 National Guard soldiers have died since that war began in 2003, 15 from Illinois.
The casualty figures are far higher than anything the guard is used to dealing with.
In New York, about 100 guard members recently received daylong training on delivering news of a death. That training didn't exist when the Iraq war started. Lt. Col. Paul Fanning recalls working in 2003 with the state guard's first casualty since the Korean War.
"I came to the family and I said, 'You know, we've never done this before,"' Fanning said. "'This is not something we're very good at because we haven't done it."'
Other states have begun similar classes.
In Arkansas, the National Guard has about 120 people trained, up from 30 last year. And in Texas, the National Guard has trained about 100 soldiers a year since the Iraq war started. That's about four times as many as the Texas guard trained annually before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said.
Illinois' guard has held small classes around the state since the 33rd went to Afghanistan last fall, training about 110 soldiers to deliver the news of a death; in the months ahead, it hopes to add another 40.
Those troops also are training for perhaps a tougher job: being the person who develops a relationship with the family to help them through the agonizing weeks after a loved one dies.
Ask the soldiers why they'd volunteer to do a job no one wants, and some acknowledge they didn't.
"I was sort of appointed," Maj. Joey Wegmann, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, says with a sheepish smile.
Wegmann was in a class of 14 soldiers — officers and enlisted men and women — who trained over two days in a classroom at Camp Lincoln in Springfield.
A training video depicts a tense soldier talking to a sobbing, young Army wife. The two instructors talk between segments of the video, laying out the details of the job: how the soldiers will be contacted to notify families, what information the soldiers will have and what forms are needed. The soldiers take notes but ask few questions.
The training emphasizes the importance of formality. Soldiers should stick as closely as possible to a script that begins with condolences from the secretary of the Army.
The trainers stress that, while it's impossible to not feel the pain of the moment, soldiers should recognize the limits of their task.
"Don't try to empathize too much or make it all better," 1st Sgt. Mariah Peterson tells the class. "We want to avoid any physical contact as much as possible."
Guard members work in twos — a soldier and a chaplain — to tell the next of kin about a death. After the pair is given the assignment, they have four hours to find the family and deliver the news.
The military only started sending soldiers to tell families of a loved one's death during the latter stages of the Vietnam war. Before that, a few lines in a telegram were the only word a family was guaranteed.
Illinois Guardsman Mark Jackson never had the benefit of classroom training before he was called on last October to work with Ralph and Linda Grieco, a couple from the Chicago suburb of Winfield whose son, Staff Sgt. Kevin Grieco, died in Afghanistan. But Jackson had a lot of on-the-job training: As a state trooper, he has informed families of loved ones' deaths "more than I can count."
The 43-year-old is blunt in describing how it feels: "Like crap. You just feel, you know, that there's nothing you can do."
The National Guard gave him a different sort of assignment when he was appointed to help the Griecos, one that proved even tougher.
In the weeks following their son's death, Jackson drove between his home near Joliet and the Griecos' two-story house an hour north to help them fill out paperwork and arrange travel to and from Arlington National Cemetery, where their son is buried.
The Griecos learned about Jackson, his own wife and kids, and the year and a half he spent leading 800 soldiers in Iraq. And Jackson learned about Kevin Grieco. He was an Eagle Scout, loved country music and served in the Navy before joining the guard.
When Grieco died Oct. 27, he left behind a wife, Rashmi, whom he met at a country and western bar. There is also a 3-year-old daughter, Angeli, and a 4-year-old son, Joshua.
"They're wonderful people, wonderful people," Jackson said, "and I just hated what they were going through."
The Griecos say they've appreciated Jackson, and four months later still talk to him by e-mail.
"He became like family, I'm telling you," Linda Grieco said. "He was here all the time."
But Jackson found there were limits to what he could do. He's had no success, for instance, speeding up the family's request for a military report on their son's death. Six months after he died, they still don't have it.
But they do have some answers. In mid-February, a soldier who served with Kevin Grieco told them about the 35-year-old machine gunner's death.
Kevin Grieco was in an Afghan police compound when there was an explosion. He took the brunt of the blast from the suicide bomber. Four others — one American soldier and three Afghans, among them a young boy — died in the attack. Another American was injured.
Those details didn't provide much comfort, Ralph Grieco said.
"Kevin's still dead," he said.