Casualty assistance officers help families find light in darkness
July 2, 2010
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - The Army has come a long way from the days of Vietnam, when families of service members killed on active duty were greeted with telegrams coldly notifying them of their loss.
Today, the Army sends trained notification teams, followed rapidly by casualty assistance officers to guide families through decision-making and completion of the necessary paperwork for all the benefits they have coming to them.
"The key reason we're here is to ensure they get what they're entitled to," said Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Otis, a casualty assistance officer assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Otis is currently Erica Paci's CAO. The two met March 4, shortly after Paci learned of her husband's death.
Dispelling any confusion between a notification team and CAO, Otis explained how the two are separate, but work together for a brief time.
Notification teams, Otis said, are comprised of two people holding minimum ranks of sergeant first class, chief warrant officer 2 or captain, and must be of equal or higher rank than the deceased. The team always includes a chaplain. It is the notification team's responsibility to break the news in person to the next of kin. The family's CAO then makes initial contact within three hours of the family being notified.
"They go out, do the notification, come back to the casualty assistance office, then I read their briefing sheet and get any heads up on issues that we might already be facing I need to be aware of," Otis said.
After contacting the family, the CAO arranges to meet them as soon as possible to help ensure their benefits kick in.
Some of those entitlements, such as a $100,000 death gratuity, are automatic. Others must be initiated and require paperwork. While understanding and explaining benefits are a large part of the CAO's responsibilities, his duties don't end there.
Among of the first things he assists with are funeral arrangements. From being present for the dignified transfer of remains to helping plan the funeral and burial, CAOs are available to grieving families for all administrative matters regarding their deceased loved ones. Most rely heavily on them for guidance.
"They're the ones who ultimately decide on what they want to do, but we want to give them the best advice we can," Otis said.
While there is no set duration of time for CAOs to remain with families, Otis said six months is average. Entering his fourth month with Paci, Otis said the majority of benefits are in place, but they're still waiting on a few pieces of paperwork. Otis will continue to serve as her CAO until those pieces arrive and the loose ends are tied up.
A final after-action review provides closure and signals the conclusion of their time together. At its end, the Army solicits feedback for continuous improvements based on input from families. If an early AAR was to be conducted, Paci would likely give positive feedback.
"My casualty assistance officer is an angel," she said. "He has been so incredible from Day 1, and continues to be ... a light in the darkness."
Otis said being a CAO is one of the most rewarding experiences he has had in his career.
"You always hope not to have to do this, but it's an honor," he said. "Any case in general would be a privilege because the person gave the ultimate sacrifice, but this has just been really special to me because of how much (Paci) loved her husband, how much he loved them, and the kids are just great."
Being a CAO has also given Otis a fresh view of the Army.
"I've been in 19 years, and I didn't know the full benefits and stuff that the Army provides," he said. "I think the Army has come a long way and really tries to take care of its families."
Laura M. Levering is a reporter with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.