By J.D. LeipoldApril 3, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, April 3, 2007) - When the Army notifies families of the loss of their Soldier, it does so with the best information available at the time of death as well as within four hours of the Soldier's death.
However, follow-on investigations, including those by the Criminal Investigation Division, sometimes yield different results with regard to the circumstances behind a Soldier's death. In a few cases, the news media reported the Army had made mistakes in the reports to families on the circumstances behind their Soldier deaths.
As a result, then-Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey ordered the Army to review all reports and investigations on the deaths of Soldiers to ensure that what families are initially told regarding their Soldier's death matched any investigations completed at a later date.
The Army examined all cases in which CID conducted investigations into the cause of death of a Soldier who died in-theater, which encompassed the review of 640 CID investigations dating to the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.
"After our recent comprehensive review of the CID cases, we found there were two other instances where the initial results provided to the family didn't match what was later reported in other investigations," said Col. Pat Gawkins, director of the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, Human Resources Command, in Alexandria, Va. "However, in both cases, the families already had the investigative reports and knew the true causes of death, so we contacted the families to make sure they were comfortable with the amount of information they now had. Both families indicated they were."
Since the change in policy, the Army has seen tremendous responsiveness on the part of unit commanders and their staffs. In three instances commanders quickly notified the CMAOC of concerns about the possibility of friendly fire in their casualty cases. As a result, the Army was able to go out quickly to the fallen Soldiers' families, within 24 hours of the initial notification, and share the updated in formation. Families are also entitled to receive a copy of the investigaton's final report.
Gawkins, a casualty assistance officer during Operation Desert Storm, said the CID review was a reconciliation of cases, not an investigation, the intent being that the Army wanted to make certain the circumstances on which family members were briefed as the initial causes of their Soldier's death were the same as the findings in subsequent CID investigations.
"As of June 13, 2006, when a Soldier is killed in-theater, his unit is required to forward command-level investigations to one central location here at HRC," said Gawkins. "We now have oversight with regard to investigations, and this assists us by providing visibility on outside investigations whose findings on the cause of death of the Soldier may differ from the cause of death briefed to the families during the initial notification. As of June, we've reviewed 159 investigations and had zero re-notifications to family members."
Today, when a casualty notification officer calls on a family to inform them of their Soldier's death, the CNO passes on to the family verified information from the battlefield that the Army believes to be the circumstances behind the death with the caveat that due to a change in policy, the Army now conducts an Army Regulation 15-6 investigation on all hostile- and fratricide/friendly-fire deaths, the results of which will be made available to the family. While those investigations take time, the CAO will work with the family in the course of support entitlements and benefits.
"By conducting these 15-6 investigations, the point we're trying to convey to the family is that there is a deliberate investigative process being applied to the casualty circumstances so there is absolutely, no question on the circumstances behind the Soldier's death," said Gawkins.
In addition to providing more concise casualty information to families on the loss of their Soldiers, CMAOC has revised and improved upon several other elements, including the creation of a two-part course which consists of a CNO/CAO training DVD as well as an instructor-led classroom course. This modular program is part of the center's formal, standardized training for all Soldiers who are eligible to be assigned as a CNO and/or CAO.
The DVD offers a scenario played by actors who illustrate the entire CAO/CNO process, from the battlefield death of a Soldier, through the notification process, the funeral, its aftermath, and the often lengthy process of assisting the survivor family. While the DVD uses actors for the scenario, it also includes comments by CNOs, CAOs, survivors, chaplains and escorts. The DVD was sent to the 27 U.S., and six overseas casualty area commands to aid in standardizing the CNO/CAO training process.