Casualty assistant officers:
August 13, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - A young woman is sitting on her front porch writing a letter to her husband, a paratrooper currently serving in Iraq, when a black sedan pulls into the driveway. Two solemn-faced military officers in dress uniforms step out, adjusting their maroon berets to their heads, their jump boots shining brightly in the Carolina sun.
Wonder and panic, along with so many thoughts and emotions start to run through her mind as the Soldiers make their way up the path to where she is now standing. They speak gently to her and brace her fall as she sinks to her knees in disbelief of the situation playing out in front of her. Her husband has been killed in combat, serving the nation. "This can't be happening," she shouts, sobbing.
We often see these scenes on television or in a movie, always moving and quite dramatic. But for American servicemembers and their Families, this is a real occurrence and it happens in small towns and big cities across our nation. The question Families often have is - what now'
After official notification of the next of kin, the notifying officers deliver their report to one of 35 casualty assistance centers in the United States. The CAC at Fort Bragg, which averages about 250 cases a year, handles casualty and mortuary affairs for all active-duty Soldiers, Reservists, retirees and veterans for the state of North Carolina.
"There are many divisions within the CAC," said Joyce L. Land, branch chief for the Fort Bragg CAC, "but they all have the same mission - to support the next of kin of the fallen Soldier."
The different support mechanisms include the mortuary support to handle the remains, and make sure that they reach their final destination. The memorial affairs division assists with plane-side honors as well as interment honors. The assistance division provides the casualty assistance officer that will be assigned to the Family for as long as they need.
The CAO is a Soldier-caseworker who is assigned to the Family. These specially trained Soldiers are put on temporary duty orders to be available to the Families as needed, helping them find their way through the serious task ahead of them.
"(Casualty assistance officers) link the spouse up with all the benefits that she (or he) is entitled to and provides her a singular contact for any questions that she may have about what is going on," said Sgt. Maj. Ceaser Roberts Jr., the senior enlisted advisor for civil-military affairs, 1st Theater Sustainment Command and a trained CAO.
"The first few days are all about explaining the entitlements due," said Land. "We are going to stay with her and make sure she understands the process and what she is entitled to. It is mostly paperwork and talking with her, we let her know what is going on every step of the way."
The CAO is the Army's face of support and guidance, providing leadership and selfless service to the Family of the fallen.
Members of the casualty assistance office provide the immediate sense of security that is needed for each Family, said Land. "It is our mission to show that the Army will never leave a fallen comrade behind and will always be there to support the Family, wherever they may be," she said.
CAO receive training and mentorship each time they handle a case and the CAC is always available to support them.
"The duties of a CAO are important and the training is crucial," said Roberts. "It prepares us for what to expect, how to react and imparts us with the knowledge needed to help others."
Serving as a CAO can be emotionally tasking but can also be personally rewarding.
"It makes me feel proud to take care of fellow Soldiers and their Families," said Roberts. "The Army is a big Family and even if your loved one passes away we will be here to support them."
That sense of Family is also found in the Fort Bragg CAC, which is currently made up of an all veteran/retiree civilian staff.
"I believe all Soldiers need someone who cares in this type of job because the Family may not know what to do when their Soldier dies," said Land, an Army veteran and 40-year career civil servant, 20 of those years serving in casualty assistance. "We bring to the table the support and compassion that is needed to accomplish the mission."