Casualty Assistance reaches out to bereaved family after Soldier's death
By Rona S. Hirsch Staff writer
They are the saddest jobs in the military.
Casualty Notification Officers (CNOs) are tasked with notifying the next of kin of a service member's death, while Casualty Assistant Officers (CAOs) help the grieving family through the funeral and maze of paperwork in obtaining the autopsy report, personal items and death benefits.
"It's a very difficult job," said Capt. Drew Techner, a Reservist for the Selective Service System who is attached to U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Meade. "But it's rewarding, too. As a CAO, I can only make things better. I am helping the family put themselves back together again."
One of a handful of full-time CAOs in the Army, Techner was among the 28 service members who attended the Casualty Assistance Training program held May 30-31 at Smallwood Hall at Fort Meade.
"This training was very helpful, even as an experienced CAO," said Techner, a former Philadelphia police detective who has assisted eight families since Christmas Day. "It provided a refresher on many points and new information. I know this training has made me a better CAO."
Training is offered at Fort Meade every quarter. The recent session was led by Antoinette O'Connor, chief of personnel operations for the Military Personnel Division, which includes the Casualty Assistance Center (CAC) at Fort Meade; and Lisa Dent and Arthur Clausell, of the installation's Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Office.
"We train them how to be sensitive to the family's needs and be aware of the family's needs and of all the procedures and guidelines," O'Connor said.
Certified CNOs and CAOs typically perform casualty assistance as an additional duty. "You can be called to CAO duty at any time, according to the needs of the Army," Dent said. "This takes priority over other missions."
To be eligible, the CNO or CAO must hold the rank of sergeant 1st class or above; chief warrant officer 2 or above, plus a minimum of six years of active duty service; or captain and above. "We want someone with maturity and experience," O'Connor said.
The CNO and CAO assist the next of kin who reside in their area. Unless the family is located where the unit is based, the CNO and CAO do not belong to the deceased Soldier's unit.
Whether the loved one was killed in combat in Iraq, died in a traffic accident off post or is missing in action, personal notification will be given to the spouse, guardian of minor children and parents. Families are no longer notified by telegram, then left to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy.
But the CNO will not leave the family member alone. The CNO will ask who to contact and remain there until the person arrives. "They don't give the bad news and walk away," Dent said. "They will ensure that someone is at the house with them."
By regulation, the CNOs are not permitted to discuss with families the details of death benefits they might receive, how the deceased's remains and personal effects will be returned to them or information surrounding the death.
That task is left to the CAO, who will drive the family to the airport to receive the casket and stand by them at the funeral -- unless they object.
"Sometimes they are angry," Clausell said. "They don't want to see a green uniform. But we're here to satisfy the family, whatever their wishes are."
The CAOs also assist in explaining and filling out the paperwork. "It's important for CAOs to know exactly what the family member is going to need to know," Dent said.
The CAO also will pick up the deceased's personal property shipped to the Joint Theater Personal Effects Depot at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. "The family looks forward to seeing the effects -- a letter, sweater, picture," Techner said.
On a training video, one mother recalled finding a letter among her son's possessions. "It was the last letter he wrote to me," she said. "I fell to my knees sobbing."
The family may request that personal items not be laundered.
Though more time is spent with a family in the early weeks, the length of the CAO assignment generally lasts up to six months. Autopsy reports are issued in about 60-90 days, while reports filed by the Criminal Investigation Division and safety investigators may take longer.
But the mission requires more than helping fill out forms. According to the training guides, "You are there to assist the family during the time of their greatest need. Therefore, your most important duty is to just be there for them. During your CAO duty, the family should be able to reach you at all times, and you should respond to the family's requests as soon as possible.
"Treat the family with respect, honor and caring; give them your full attention and dedication. . . . Your duty is to demonstrate the essence of Army professionalism."
Because casualty assistance can be so wrenching, training materials urge CAOs to seek counseling, if necessary. "By this time in the process, you may have grown close to the family of the Soldier and may have internalized their grief. . . . The experience will affect you emotionally, perhaps more than you are aware. Do not hesitate to get help."
Though distressing, Maj. Christi Obstrup, assistant operations officer for First Army Division East, volunteered to train as an CAO. "I think it would be an honor to do it," said the mother of three. "It would be difficult, but it would be the least I could do to help a family through."
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