By Kari Hawkins, Redstone RocketAugust 28, 2008
For more than 20 years, Jean Manley has been helping military families deal with an aspect of life that is difficult, emotional and heart-breaking.
With her gentle manner and efficient thoughtfulness, Manley provides a helping hand as military families come to grips with the loss of their beloved Soldier, whether they are an elderly veteran or retiree who has died of natural causes, a veteran or retiree who has died in an accident, or an active duty Soldier who has succumbed to an untimely death.
"It's a very hard time for the families and we have to be there to assist them," Manley said. "The circumstances you work under in this job can be very difficult at times."
As a casualty assistance clerk in Redstone Arsenal's Casualty Assistance Center, Manley, along with co-worker Johnny Hawkins, works with the family's of deceased veterans, retirees and active duty Soldiers in an 11-county area that includes Madison, Marshall, Morgan, Jackson, Lauderdale, Dekalb, Cullman, Limestone, Lawrence, Franklin and Colbert counties.
The Casualty Assistance Center receives an average of 35 calls for assistance each month. Since the fiscal year started Oct. 1, 2007, the center has coordinated efforts for 480 funerals.
Sometimes that assistance starts with the notification of the local family of a Soldier's death.
"The Army does personal notification for active duty deaths," Manley said. "We provide a uniformed officer along with a chaplain from Redstone Arsenal to go out and notify the primary next of kin and secondary next of kin."
But, most of the time, the death involves a veteran or retiree, and the Casualty Assistance Center is notified of the death by a funeral home or family members or friends of the deceased. When notified, the center coordinates the scheduling of military honors at the funeral, notifies casualty assistance officers who aid the next of kin and assists in providing other services to the deceased's family.
Because there are not casualty assistance officers in the area for the Marines, Air Force and Navy, the center will also coordinate arrangements for these military branches.
The Redstone Arsenal Honor Guard provides services at funerals of veterans and retirees when they are notified through the center.
"Funeral homes, friends, family - anyone can call us and request our assistance with the funeral of a veteran or retiree," Manley said. "Normally, the funeral home will call us when the family tells them they want their veteran or retiree to get military honors.
"All honorably discharged veterans are entitled to a military funeral with a minimum of Taps and, the folding and presenting of the flag. All retirees are entitled to that plus a firing team. We will also arrange a firing team for a combat veteran whenever possible."
When talking to a funeral home or a family, Manley will make sure to follow the family's wishes.
"We had four funerals the other day, three were for retirees and one was for a veteran," she said. "One retiree wanted the firing team, so the National Guard helped with that. One only wanted the flag presentation and Taps, and the third only wanted the very bare minimum. The veteran received the flag presentation and Taps. You have to go with what the family wants in all cases."
Once she gets a call notifying her of a veteran's or retiree's death, Manley will contact Sgt. 1st Class Walter Latham, who coordinates the Honor Guard.
Currently, the Arsenal's Honor Guard has five active duty Soldiers who serve as members. But it should have a minimum of 21 members. To fill those slots, the center relies on Soldiers from the Alabama Army National Guard to volunteer. When volunteers aren't available, Manley contacts Fort Rucker, which will send an Honor Guard to a North Alabama funeral.
"It takes seven Soldiers to do honors at a funeral. They serve as pall bearers, as the flag folding and presentation team, as bugle players for Taps and as the firing team," Manley said.
"It takes a lot of time to be on an Honor Guard and the commands on the Arsenal find it difficult to give up Soldiers for this duty because of the crunch of time."
The center also helps widows file for survivor benefits and assists with other issues that may arise from the death of a veteran or retiree.
"We advocate for the families if we are needed," Manley said. "We can act as a liaison for them with the Veterans Administration. A lot of time widows don't know who to call or they aren't persistent when an issue arises. We will help them with those kinds of things."
Manley also works with situations where the Soldier's family is local and the deceased Soldier is at another location, and vice versa. When this occurs, Manley will coordinate with the Casualty Area Command to arrange the shipping of the Soldier's body to the location desired by the family.
"We try to abide by the needs of the family and the wishes of the family," Manley said.
Manley's job can get difficult when veterans, retirees and active duty Soldiers don't keep their records current. They should update their address and contact information, beneficiaries and emergency data whenever there is a change.
Although the Casualty Assistance Center deals with a difficult time in a military family's life, it is rewarding when Manley learns that the deceased's family found comfort in the Honor Guard services provided at the funeral.
"We get a lot of feedback of appreciation from families," Manley said. "It's what we can do for the family and to honor the veteran. It's about honoring them and their service to our country. We owe them that much."