By Brett Gillin
For many service members, the use of social media sites like Facebook is the best way to stay in touch with friends and family members back home. As we’ve seen countless times over the last few years, the men and women who serve in our armed forces are using Facebook more and more. So much so, in fact, that the U.S. Army regularly releases and updates their official guidelines for Social Media Policies.
One of the questions that we get is what happens to these social media pages when one of our brave service members dies in the line of duty. With more than 6,000 casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many service members’ friends and families have been left with the unenviable task of figuring out what can be done about their social media pages, among the countless other tragedies the death of a loved one brings.
The quick answer is that when a service member loses his or her life in battle, their Facebook page will do one of three things: remain exactly as it was, be turned into a memorial page, or get removed from Facebook at the request of the family. It is a heart-wrenching decision either way, but a whole lot of good can come from the memorialization of these service members’ pages.
These pages can become virtual gathering spots for friends and families to share their memories of their fallen service member. One example is that of Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham. Cunningham was a United State Air Force Pararescueman who was killed in action on March 4, 2002 while he was taking part in Operation Anaconda during the war in Afghanistan.
Cunningham’s page has turned into one of the most powerful memorial pages on Facebook. The bio section tells the detailed story of his service and his untimely death, which ultimately led to him being posthumously being awarded with a Purple Heart and an Air Force Cross. But it’s his timeline where the memorial truly takes shape.
Posts on his page may be sporadic, but they are powerful when they come. It has become a place for honoring other service members who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, a place where poetry is shared, and a place to help spread the message of other memorials and foundations to help the families of those lost.
Some memorials take a more personal stance, such as that of Navy Seal Robert James Reeves. Reeves was killed in action on August 6, 2011, when the helicopter he was riding in was shot down by Taliban insurgents. The devastating posts on his wall now come from friends and family sharing pictures and memories of Reeves, sharing tributes to him and other service members, and as a gathering place to help mourners deal with his and countless other deaths.
Sometimes, the family decides to use the memorial page for something different altogether. On January 19, 2012, Corporal Kevin James Reinhard was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan. While the death of the 25-year-old devastated friends and family, they decided to try to turn it into something good. So they set up the Corporal Kevin James Reinhard, USMC Memorial Scholarship Fund, a charity dedicated to helping support wounded veterans foundations.
Other tributes, like those to Navy Seal Jon Tumilson and Captain Reid K. Nishizuka, become places to keep friends and family updated on the lives of those left behind. Then, there are the extremely high-profile memorial pages, like this one, Honoring Chris Kyle, where touching, personal notes mix with remembrances and promotion of worthy causes, books, or even movies honoring their lives.
If you would like to learn more about how to create a memorial page, click here to fill out Facebook’s Memorial Request form. You will only need the name of the person to be memorialized, an approximate (or exact if available) date of death, and proof of death if available. If no proof of death is provided, the page can still become a memorial, but the Facebook team will have to verify that there has been no recent activity before it can be turned. If no request is made for memorialization, the Facebook page will stay exactly as it was, as Facebook does not deactivate accounts.
Another option that friends and family have of memorializing their fallen service members, should they decide not to request the memorialization of the account, is to create a community page honoring their fallen loved one. There are hundreds of these pages on Facebook today, such as this one, honoring the 19 U.S. Special Forces soldiers that died during Operation Red Wings (which was the basis for the movie Lone Soldier.) These pages operate just like any other community page, with dedicated administrators writing the content for the site and setting the privacy settings to determine who can write to the page.