CAO a 'pillar of strength'
May 12, 2011
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- The casket of a Colorado Soldier killed in action descended from the cabin of a charter plane at Buckley Air Force Base April 20 as Sgt. 1st Class Luis Alicea, 704th Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, guided the grieving Family to the Soldier's remains.
The Fort Carson Honor Guard conducted plane-side honors for Sgt. Vorasack Xaysana, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, rendering salutes and transferring the casket from the plane to the hearse, after the mourning Family members hugged the casket. Alicea stood behind the Family for support during the somber moment.
This is Alicea's newest mission, unlike any he'd completed before in his 21 years of military service. He is assigned to comfort the Family of a Soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
Alicea is the casualty assistance officer for the Xaysana Family.
"I am more than honored to do it, it is a tough job, very emotional and sad, but it is something I am honored to do for a fallen comrade," Alicea said after receiving the assignment through the Fort Carson Casualty Assistance Center April 10.
The CAC provides support to the next of kin of deceased and injured Soldiers, veterans and retirees within a five-state area, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, South and North Dakota.
The center appoints a casualty notification officer and a casualty assistance officer when a Soldier is reported as deceased, said Bobby Jackson, CAC memorial affairs officer and memorial coordinator for Xaysana.
"This is the hardest job in the Army," said Carlito Page, chief of the CAC. "I tell the CNO and CAO to put themselves in the Families' shoes; you should take care of them as you would want your Family to be taken care of."
The CNO notifies the Family of their fallen Soldier and the CAO helps the Family cope with the loss of their Soldier, veteran or retiree.
The CAO also prepares funeral arrangements, military funeral honors and helps the Family understand its entitlements and apply for benefits, Jackson said.
"The CNO and CAO have to be equal in rank or higher to the fallen Soldier," Page said. "The CNO along with a chaplain notifies the Family of their loss, and then the CAO takes over from there."
Page encourages Soldiers who plan to become a CNO and a CAO to self-evaluate and emotionally prepare for the job.
"This is where maturity comes in, not everybody can do the task because of the nature of what it is," Page said.
"Supporting the Family at the plane-side honors was very tough, but they need you to be strong," Alicea said. "Seeing the streets lined with saluting servicemembers and civilians was powerful for me as well as the Family."
Civilians and members from all military branches stood side-by-side, lining the street, saluting as the hearse traveled through Buckley Air Force Base to the front gate.
"It is amazing to see the streets lined with salutes. When a Soldier is honored like that, their Family can't help but hold their heads up and have a sense that their loved one is a hero," Jackson said.
Steve Xaysana, Vorasack Xaysana's brother, said he and his Family felt proud to see everyone paying their respect.
"We are so thankful for all the help from the military," Steve Xaysana said. "It is really helpful to have (Alicea) supporting us and guiding us through the paperwork ... we are so thankful."
The Family is making full use of the help they get, Alicea said. "(Vorasack Xaysana) was the only one in his Family in the military, so they aren't too familiar with the Army."
Alicea will assist the Xaysana Family for 180 days. If the Family needs more help, his assistance can be extended, Jackson said.
After six months the CAC transfers the Families' case to Survivor Outreach Services, but the CAO can still be part of the Family's life Page said.
"We tell the Family, even if its five years down the road, if you need us, call us. You are part of our Family and we are here for you ... that's what the CAC does," Jackson said. "If the Family member calls me at midnight, I am there to pick up the phone to answer any questions."
The CAO is an important link between Families and resources, said Milly Briseno, whose husband died six years ago; she received assistance from the CAC.
"My CAO was a pillar of strength I could depend on," she said. "The military is the only thing my kids and I know and my CAO really kept us connected with our military community ... he really went the extra mile for my Family, far beyond expectations."
Briseno's CAO stayed in contact with her Family for a year after his six-month assignment.
Captains and above with six or more years of service, chief warrant officer two-five and senior noncommissioned officers sergeant first class and higher, can serve as CNO or CAO following a training on post.
"The CNO and CAO training consists of a three-day-course on Fort Carson given by Jean Graves, trainer instructor at the CAC," Page said. "The units try to send every sergeant first class and above to the course."
Alicea attended the course in January, which prepared him for what to expect when he assists a Family, Alicea said.
"We learned to take situations as they come ... the Family might take it out on you but they aren't upset with you, they are just upset with the situation. You can't take it personally," Alicea explained.
Every unit is responsible for providing Soldiers for funeral detail, Alicea added.
"You need a senior NCO or higher prepared to be casualty assistance officers," Alicea added.
Funeral detail and CNO and CAO assignments are difficult jobs, Jackson said.
"But every servicemember is due honors and we give them that respect ... they are their Family's heroes, we want them to be seen as exactly that."