VICKSBURG, Miss. - Approximately 25 Army Reserve Soldiers with the 412th Theater Engineer Command attended casualty assistance officer and casualty notification officer training at the George A. Morris U.S. Army Reserve Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Nov. 20-21 to learn to care for the families of fallen Soldiers after their loss.
The two-day training covered how to properly notify the next of kin of their family member's passing, assist them with resources to help them cope and proper procedures for paperwork and reports to ensure they collect their benefits and entitlements.
A casualty assistance or casualty notification officer is a senior noncommissioned officer in the rank of sergeant first class or higher, a warrant officer in the rank of chief warrant officer 2 or higher or an officer in the rank of captain or higher. All components, active duty, Reserve and National Guard, are trained and assist all families.
"The reservists here in the state of Mississippi support both National Guard families and active-duty families, as well as their own," said Joel Locklear, Fort Polk casualty training coordinator for Mississippi, Louisiana and nine east Texas counties. "That's the same across the board."
Locklear trains all components of the Army and ensures he gives them comprehensive classes to prepare them for this duty.
"I teach them casualty notification, what they can expect from the Army as far as support, what they can expect from the family as far as reactions and what they can expect from themselves, as far as their own physical reactions to the mission," said Locklear. "Then we also teach a comprehensive section on casualty assistance, which covers benefits, entitlements, agencies they're going to have to work with and some of the choke points and problem areas they can encounter. I also throw in a grief and bereavement module, which talks about care for the caregiver and how to recognize issues that could rear their ugly head during this mission both for the family members and supporters: The CAOs and the CNOs."
This training is important to ensure the family is cared for properly.
"You can't measure the benefits of it. If you've got someone who doesn't know where to go or what to do, they're going to be lost. This keeps them focused on the mission and that mission is taking care of families," said Locklear. "What our people do when it comes to the notification piece is they go out and notify and make sure the family is safe. On the assistance piece, they go out, they make sure the funeral is taken care of, they make sure the family is taken care of both emotionally and physically, as far as benefits and entitlements are applied for, benefits and entitlements are received and they can even refer family to special agencies."
The referrals are significant to ensuring the family has the tools they need to cope and function after the passing of their Soldier.
"In 2006, I had a case where I had to refer a family member to rehab, because I noticed an issue with some [substance] abuse and that was definitely beneficial for the family," said Locklear. "When you get a young woman or a young man, the recipient of $500,000 now, and they've never managed a checkbook, the CAO can get them to budgeting classes or steer them toward survivor outreach services, where they have internal financial counselors that can help with that."
While CAO and CNO training is done jointly, their responsibilities are very different.
"The difference between casualty notification and assistance: Notification officers are called immediately, once the death has been verified. They are first responders, if you will. They go out to the house, they share the bad news with the family," said Locklear. "The casualty assistance officer is more of a long-term follow-up person. The main difference between the two is when you initially do the notification, it's not a happy time, but when you do the assistance mission, you're helping the family by providing benefits, support, even personal support which can help them and creates a bond usually between the assistance officer and the family members. In notification, you very rarely create a bond except a bond of hatred. But a lot of our assistance officers maintain contact with the family years after the mission."
Not all Soldiers serve as both nor should they, according to Locklear.
"A lot of guys who make good notification officers, might not make good assistance officers and vice versa," he said.
Although not all Soldiers will perform these duties, knowing how to is vital.
"[This is important because] number one, it's mandated and, number two, it is something we owe the family of the deceased Soldier. Therefore, people must know exactly how to execute the task at hand, whether it's CAO or CNO," said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Carlos Jimenez, 412th Theater Engineer Command, command chief warrant officer. "They must know how to execute that task flawlessly."
Training Soldiers to be CAO/CNOs is not only beneficial in helping the family, but also in helping the Soldiers who attend the training.
"It gives them a confidence that they may not have going out. The Army got this part right," said Locklear. "They created a training that would be an asset to Soldiers who may only do it once or twice in their lifetime."
The training not only builds confidence, but ensures Soldiers are prepared for the somber experience.
"It benefits the Soldiers in several ways; number one: Procedurally, regulatory-wise, policy-wise, they'll get all the information they need," said Jimenez. "Secondly, the training has video vignettes of people who have executed those missions, so they get an idea of the people who have done CAO and CNO and get a perspective on the totality of the mission. I think there is a better understanding of all the dynamics that are involved in this task, as it can be difficult."
The Soldiers see some benefits through this training, but Locklear believes readiness increases with this training as well.
"Soldiers who know about it, it makes them better prepared for deployments," said Locklear. "Some of the things we go over in training when it comes to finances and filling out forms opens up a lot of Soldiers to where they will discuss issues that normally they wouldn't discuss prior to deployments with their family members. This steadily increases Soldier readiness and even family readiness when they deploy."
The program also benefits the Army by keeping the families supported in their time of need.
"It cuts down on negative issues, such as complaints to congressmen," said Locklear. "We have to look out for ours and that's what we do. It's another way of taking care of Soldiers, but they switched it over to taking care of families."
For Jimenez, this is more than just a training experience. This is about paying a debt to the families.
"It ties down to what is owed. We as an entity owe the families of deceased Soldiers," said Jimenez. "It's the last remnant of memory that family will have in regards to the Army and how they were taken care of."