"Army's 'John Doe' Letter: A Brigadier General Apologizes on YouTube
(January 10, 2009)
About 7,000 U.S. Army families got a Christmas present worthy of the (pre-Whoville caper) Grinch this holiday season. They'd all lost a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan.
A Letter from a ColonelRight around Christmas, these families got a letter from a Colonel with the U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Alexandria, Virginia. The idea of the letter had been to let the families know where they could find services or gifts from nonprofit organizations that help families of America's fallen soldiers.
The actual letter wasn't quite what the Army had in mind.
Where the receiving family's name and home address should have been, the letters said "Army Long Term Case Management." And, right under that, "Dear John Doe:"
It was a mistake, and a big one. Some contractor printed up the 7,000 "John Doe" letters, and somehow they got into the mail with that wonderfully depersonalizing salutation.1
A Brigadier General ApologizesThere's no 'reset' button in the real world, so the U.S. Army Human Resources Command's Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Center in Alexandria, Virginia has to clean up the mess as best they can. Part of that process is a statement the center issued today:
" 'There are no words to adequately apologize for this mistake or for the hurt it may have caused,' Brig. Gen. Reuben D. Jones, Army adjutant general, said in the statement. 'It is important the original intent of the letter is not lost. The organizations mentioned are dedicated to honoring loved ones and recognizing their sacrifice and commitment,' the apology continued...." (CNN)
Next, the Army Chief of StaffThe Army's Chief of Staff, General George W. Casey Jr., is sending a personal letter to families who got 'John Doed.'
I think it's likely that it'll be pretty much the same letter for each of the families, with maybe the General's signature as the "personal" part. Still, it's General Casey's name on those letters: and that counts for something.
Start with a Colonel, End with a GeneralThis monumental foul-up should never have happened, of course, but I think the Army has been handling the aftermath rather well. A fairly prompt - and rather abject - apology, followed by a letter from what I believe is the highest-ranking military leader in the Army. (The Secretary of the Army is a civilian.)
The way I look at things, that's a class act.
In the news:
- "Army apologizes for 'Dear John Doe' letters"
Reuters (January 7, 2009)
- "Army sorry for 'John Doe' letters to relatives of war dead"
CNN (January 7, 2009)
Includes link to John Doe letter (PDF)
1 I worked for twenty years in the marketing department of a company that did most of its business through the mail. For ten of those years, I was the List Manager.
Merging a list of 7,000 names with a form letter isn't that hard. The only part that's remotely tricky is making sure that the mail room is organized so that the right letter goes into the right envelope.
One of the little mysteries for me in this story is how a company that presumably handled small mailings like that could have:
- Turned a personalized letter into an insult like this
- Not noticed the mistake until the letters had been dropped