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It is the doorbell ring no military family wants to answer.

When an active-duty Soldier has died in Maryland or in theater with family members residing in the state, Fort Meade's Casualty Assistance Center is the first to notify loved ones and provide them with the support to make funeral arrangements and apply for military benefits.

"You get to help someone at the worst possible moment," said Antoinette O'Connor, chief of the Casualty Assistance Center. "The work is demanding, challenging, but it is rewarding."

O'Connor oversees a staff of five Department of Army civilians, some of whom are retired, and former Soldiers, who operate the casualty assistance program in the region.

The CAC has jurisdiction in Maryland, except for Prince George's and Montgomery counties; Pennsylvania, except for Philadelphia and the counties of Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery and Chester; Delaware; Virginia, in the counties of Accomack, Clarke, Frederick, Loudon and Northampton; and West Virginia, in the counties of Berkeley, Hampshire, Jefferson, Mineral and Morgan.

The center is responsible for providing notification officers, chaplains and casualty assistance officers for the families of deceased active-duty Soldiers. The CAO also assists families of Army retirees who died in the center's jurisdiction and families of DoD civilians who died while temporarily assigned to the area.

Families of deceased dependents of active-duty Soldiers who have died in the center's jurisdiction receive a casualty report from the center, which includes information about the dependent's death.

When an active-duty Soldier dies, the Department of the Army notifies the Casualty Assistance Center within 10 hours of the incident and prepares a casualty report for the center.

Within four hours of the receipt of the report, the CAC sends a notification team to inform the family of the Soldier's death.

O'Connor said CAC notifies the family first so they don't hear the news through the media.

"We don't want them to have to figure out if it's their loved one," she said.

Family members who are notified are listed on the Soldier's DDForm 93, which is the Record of Emergency Data, which provides the names and addresses of the Soldier's next of kin.

The notification team includes a chaplain and a Soldier at the rank of sergeant first class and above, chief warrant officer 2 and above, or captain and above, depending on the rank of the deceased Soldier.

The notification officer delivers a message on behalf of the secretary of the Army expressing deep regret for the Soldier's death. The chaplain is on hand to provide support to the family.

A casualty assistance officer contacts the family four hours after the notification team's visit. The CAO is responsible for helping to arrange the funeral and assisting the family in applying for Army and other federal benefits.

One of the first duties of a CAO is to help the family apply for the Army's death gratuity, which is a one-time payment of $100,000 to the family within 72 hours of the Soldier's death.

The CAO then works with the Person Authorized to Direct Disposition, or PADD, to arrange the funeral. The PADD is listed on the Soldier's DD Form 93.

If the PADD chooses the Army option in arranging the funeral, the Army will prepare and dress the Soldier and transport the remains to the funeral home of the PADD's choice.

The CAC then tasks the Soldiers who will perform the military duties at the funeral. The CAO also attends the funeral.

"It's a big honor and a big responsibility," said Delia Smith, the center's benefits coordinator, who has worked as a notification officer and as a CAO. "The family just needs to know that someone cares."

About two to three days after the funeral, the CAO then explains which Army and other federal benefits the family is eligible to receive and helps them to apply.

Army benefits include Servicemembers Group Life Insurance, which can range from $50,000 to $400,000, depending on the deceased Soldier's specification, and the Montgomery GI Bill. The family also is entitled to Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.

The receipt of benefits can take from two weeks to 60 days.

In addition to benefits, the family can receive a copy of the 15-6 Investigation report, which is prepared by the Army and summarizes the circumstances of the Soldier's death but does not include classified information.

After the family has received all their benefits and entitlements, they are referred to the nearest Survivors Outreach Services branch.

O'Connor said Soldiers who serve as notification officers and CAOs are mandated by the Army to receive two days of training by CAC.

"To help our Soldiers' families when the Soldier is not there is the biggest honor for me," said Ragime Blaine, casualty operations coordinator and a former Army specialist. "The Army is not just an organization that the Soldier joins. Once you're part of the Army family, you're always a part."

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