Can the Witmer Sisters Stay Home?

One sister died in Iraq. Can the other two be reassigned?

On Friday, Lori and John Witmer of New Berlin, Wis., learned that one of their three daughters, all of whom were serving in Iraq, had been killed in combat. Now the parents want the Army to keep the other two daughters out of harm’s way. When can such reassignments take place?

A soldier can get out of military service—either by reassignment or discharge—whenever he or she is the “sole surviving son or daughter” of a family. The rule dates back to World War II and an incident when five brothers were killed in the 1942 sinking of the U.S.S. Juneau. The rationale is to prevent any one family from suffering such a loss again. However, under current Army regulations, this phrase does not mean that the soldier has to be the last person alive in a family unit. To be classified a “sole surviving son or daughter,” a soldier need only have had one or more siblings killed in action. According to the Army, the two surviving Witmer daughters would certainly qualify.

Either the soldier or an immediate family member may ask for this accommodation from the Army by submitting a written request, which then gets sent up the chain to the Army’s Human Resources Command in Virginia. Once it’s reviewed and approved, the HR Command will cut orders reassigning the soldier to a training base or other location where she will be out of harm’s way.

Anyone who’s seen Saving Private Ryan knows that soldiers often prefer not to leave their buddies behind—even when they are presented with a ticket to safety. The Army has built a waiver into its “sole surviving son” policy to address this dilemma. This waiver trumps any request by the immediate family members. If the Witmer parents wanted their daughters to stay home, but the daughters wanted to rejoin their units in Iraq, the daughters’ wishes would prevail. So far, Rachel and Charity Witmer (the two surviving daughters) have not said whether they will request reassignment or ask for a waiver of this policy. Officials in the Wisconsin National Guard say they’ll support whatever decision the daughters make. However, the existence of a waiver option can put soldiers in a pickle: Because their buddies know they have the opportunity to return to combat, it can be difficult to accept a sole-survivor reassignment.

Since the start of America’s global war on terrorism in 2001, only one soldier has qualified for and requested a “sole survivor” reassignment. But soldiers can also get out of combat duties when they face family crises at home, through “compassionate” reassignments and discharges. In fiscal year 2003, the Army processed 2,272 such requests, and granted 1,306 of them—a 57 percent approval rate. The majority of compassionate reassignment requests were based on the physical or mental illness of an immediate family member, such as a parent, spouse, or child. Divorce and custody disputes also accounted for a sizable chunk of the compassionate reassignment caseload.

A typical compassionate reassignment happens when a soldier’s spouse becomes severely ill and can’t provide care for the couple’s children at home. In such a case, the Army will transfer the soldier back to the military base closest to the family’s home, and it will often put that soldier on emergency-leave status so he can take time off to tend to his family. In very severe cases, where “separation from the service will materially affect the care or support of the family by alleviating undue and genuine hardship,” the Army will actually discharge the soldier before his enlistment is up.

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Explainer thanks Lt. Col. Stanley Heath of the U.S. Army’s Human Resources Command.