FORT KNOX, Ky. – Casualty notification officers are charged with delivering what is for many Family members the most heartbreaking news they’ll ever receive – that a loved one has died.
However, two Fort Knox officers who were recently responsible for performing this duty are being praised for showing extra dedication under the most difficult of circumstances. Major Rebecca Finley of 84th Training Command said serving as a CNO for a Soldier’s spouse was the last way she expected to spend Memorial Day.
“Every month, there’s a different command that has [the duty,] and we had it for the month of May,” said Finley. “This was the last day.”
Finley said her phone rang just before 2 a.m. After hearing that a notification was needed in Lexington, Kentucky, she immediately called her lead officer, Lt. Col. Alicia Rackston, to explain the situation.
“This whole process is about taking care of our Soldiers and our Families,” said Rackston. “If we’re not taking care of them in their greatest hour of need, what good are we?”
After informing Rackston about the necessity to notify a spouse, Finley said she began the process of assessing who would be the appropriate person to perform the duty. Protocol states a similarly ranking officer must be the CNO. The casualty was a lieutenant, but no Fort Knox lieutenants or captains were available over the holiday weekend.
The duty then fell to Finley.
“When I was told the nature of the situation, I pulled out my list to see who was certified,” said Finley, before realizing she would be the one responsible for notifying the spouse.
Rackston said a chaplain is traditionally sent to accompany a CNO.
“When the notification officer goes out, they always send a chaplain to support that individual,” said Rackston. “It’s good for them to be there to be helpful for the Family as well, but it’s also to assist the notification officer. It’s hard to let someone know that their Family member is no longer here.”
In this case however, they were faced again with a lack of availability.
It was at this point that Rackston volunteered to go with Finley, a role the Casualty Assistance Center reports is not usually taken on by a high-ranking officer – so much so that when the question was raised to case manager Kimberly Sandoval, asking who authorized a lieutenant colonel to assist in the notification, the reply was, “She did.”
Rackston said she never hesitated.
“You’re my Soldier, let me get my uniform together,” said Rackston. “I said ‘We’ll go. We’ll be the team.’”
One factor that made the lack of hesitation by these two Soldiers even more extraordinary was that this was the first time either of them ever had to serve as notification officers, a duty Finley said no Soldier ever hopes to have. Nonetheless, Rackston commended her fellow officer’s handling of the situation.
“Major Finley took the time to compose herself and make sure she was in the right mental state; the right emotional state before going in because she knew this was important,” said Rackston. “You only get one chance to do it right.
“I think it was handled far beyond what I could have ever expected.”
Like Finley and Rackston, many Soldiers go through casualty notification training, which instructs and prepares them for circumstances like this one. According to Rackston, potential CNOs are taught they’ll usually be required to stay an hour or two at most until relief arrives. Once again, no friends or family could come right away due to availability.
She said they stayed and sat with the spouse nearly five hours: “You can’t leave them alone.”
Rackston said she’s thankful for the training Soldiers receive on delivering such difficult news – training that wasn’t provided when a member of her own family had a knock on the door during the Vietnam War.
“When the notification officer came to my grandmother’s door, it was a very different process than it is now, hence the reason we have it set up this way,” said Rackston. “You want to be compassionate to the Family members.”
Both officers said despite their extensive training, they never could have imagined what actually experiencing a notification would be like. Looking back now, they said they’re grateful it ended up being the two of them called into duty that morning.
“I appreciate the fact that we were able to present that news to her, and that we were able to be compassionate and considerate,” said Rackston.