By J.D. LeipoldFebruary 15, 2007
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Army News Service, Feb. 15, 2007) - It's been a year since the Army's Human Resources Command launched the Families First Casualty Call Center here to offer additional assistance to families of fallen Soldiers who were lost in combat or by accident.
The toll-free, one-on-one telephone support program has helped more than 3,000 immediate and extended families by providing ongoing support services and links to other resources to help alleviate the pain of losing their Soldier.
"Long after casualty assistance officers have concluded their duties, families often face issues or have questions regarding insurance benefits and support programs," said Lt. Col. Robert Deckard, who leads the call center. "It's our job to help families find answers to those questions, so we function as an extension of the casualty assistance officer."
When a Soldier is lost, the first person to make contact with the family is the casualty notification officer, who is sometimes accompanied by an Army chaplain. Within four hours of death, the CNO will try to visit the home of the primary next of kin to inform them of their Soldier's death. The CNO's responsibility is to let the family know the circumstances as best the Army knows at that time and to provide emotional support. Families are also informed that circumstances behind the Soldier's death could change following further investigation by the Soldier's command.
Generally, within four hours of the CNO's departure, the casualty assistance officer calls the family and sets up a meeting to discuss final arrangements. The CAO assists the family with funeral arrangements, survivor benefits, and the Soldier's personal items, along with any pay due, citations and awards.
As hard as the CAO works to ensure all is in order and resolved to the family's satisfaction, sometimes things fall through cracks or changes are made to benefits that are retroactive, but which the family is unaware of. That's where the FFCCC comes into play.
"One of the major areas we handle are the survivor benefits, which deals directly with the death gratuity benefit and servicemembers group life insurance," said Deckard. 'While these are things the CAO normally addresses and takes care of, one of the things we're doing now as a result of changes made in 2006 is working in a retroactive manner. That involves contacting next of kin to tell them about increases in benefits they're entitled to."
A significant change was the National Defense Authorization Act, which became effective Jan. 6, 2006, and increased the amount of death benefits paid to beneficiaries. The death gratuity increased from $12,000 to $100,000, and applies to beneficiaries who lost their Soldiers between Oct. 7, 2001, and Jan. 5, 2006. Likewise, SGLI increased from $250,000 to $400,000, and applies to beneficiaries who lost their Soldiers between Oct. 7, 2001, and Sept. 1, 2005.
"We're going back and trying to notify all the families who are affected by those changes to benefits, and that's the challenge for us," Deckard said. "The database we use doesn't always have the most current phone numbers or addresses - families move. Even so, we've been able to assist more than a 1,000 beneficiaries with applications for enhanced death benefits made possible by the National Defense Authorization Act."
While the FFCCC is proactive in its efforts to locate families entitled to enhanced gratuity and insurance benefits, the center encourages families to call the center regarding their lost Soldier's benefits, reports, awards, pay and allowances.
"We have six prior military service personnel who answer the phones around the clock, 24-7, to assist them with further information, perhaps an autopsy report, a citation, Montgomery GI Bill, the Soldier's possessions or anything misplaced in the process with the CAO that wasn't resolved," said Deckard. "Many of the organizations the families have to deal with are here in the Human Resources Command, so often we can take care of an issue by making a phone call or walking down the hall."
He adds, FFCCC views itself as a one-stop shop dedicated to not just resolving issues concerning the lost Soldier. They're equally concerned with the welfare of the families who sometimes don't know where to turn for assistance with respect to carrying on with their own lives.
"Another resource families may not be aware of is our support programs and connections to outside sources of assistance," Deckard said. "We have well over 75 non-profit organizations who work within specific areas of family, whether it be bereavement counseling, peer mentoring, stress management, legal assistance - a lot of times families don't know about these organizations and the benefits they make available so we act as a conduit."
A relatively new element of FFCCC is the Tragedy Assistance Survivors Program, through which families who've lost a Soldier and healed can help a family suffering a recent loss. Deckard said sometimes family members who have been through a similar situation are able to connect in a way that others can't. He also said the center has been aided greatly by families who have been providing feedback on how the center's processes can be improved upon.
"For a family, we know the loss of their Soldier is traumatic," Deckard said. "We want them to know we're here for the long haul, the longterm, even a couple of years from now. Our Soldier's families won't be forgotten; we just welcome the opportunity to better serve them."
Families who have lost their Soldiers are encouraged to call an FFCCC support coordinator, toll-free at (866) 272-5841 or visit the center online at www.armyfamiliesfirst.army.mil.