FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- His uniform was ready. The script he needed to recite was committed to memory. The training he had received was reviewed and fresh in his mind. But as hard as he tried, Sgt. 1st Class Isaac Diaz could not stop his heart from racing. The duty he was preparing to perform shook him more deeply than anything he had done during 12 years in the Army.
As he rang the doorbell and waited, he knew that nothing could prepare him to face a woman whose husband had died only hours ago and deliver the Army's notification and condolences.
"It's a hard thing," he said two months after acting as the casualty notification officer and casualty assistance officer for the family of a Fort Jackson Soldier who died in November. "I was going there to tell a woman that the man she slept next to, who she saw just that morning, was gone."
It was a duty that Diaz, a mechanic and module chief with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 187th Ordnance Battalion, said he did not expect to ever have to perform -- even after he completed the two-day certification training in April and added his name to his battalion's casualty notification officer/casualty assistance officer roster.
Battalions from around post use these rosters to provide certified Soldiers in the rank of sergeant first class or higher to notify or assist the families of Army casualties in 44 of the 46 counties in South Carolina, said Don Johnson, chief of Fort Jackson's Casualty Assistance Center. Currently, more than 350 Soldiers on post are certified to perform these duties, he said.
Once the CAC is informed of a casualty, a CNO is identified from one of these rosters, and within four hours of receiving the assignment goes with a chaplain to notify the Soldier's family "in a timely, professional and dignified manner," Johnson said. The CNOs are also tasked with gathering essential information from the family to pass along to the CAO before he or she first meets the survivors.
"I never in a million years thought I would get notified to do this," Diaz said. "At first, I wanted to say no, to tell them my uniform wasn't ready and I couldn't do it."
Diaz said he didn't feel confident that he would be able to keep from getting emotional himself seeing a family faced with such tragedy and grief. He had no way of knowing just how much help he would be.
Normally, CNO and CAO duties are performed by two different Soldiers. After notifying the family and gathering the necessary information, the CNO will leave, having spent several hours with the family, Johnson said.
The CAO will then contact the next of kin within two to six hours to establish a time to come and help the family obtain the Soldier's remains, make funeral arrangements, transport family to funeral and unit memorial services, apply for benefits and entitlements and introduce the family to an Army Community Services Survivor Outreach Services coordinator who will help the family indefinitely once all benefits and entitlements are received. Johnson said CAO duties normally last four to six months.
Diaz knew this, but after delivering the notification, he realized how unique and difficult the family's circumstances were. The woman he had notified did not speak English or drive. Her family lived on another continent. She and her young children had relocated to South Carolina less than a month before her husband's death and knew no one in the area who could help them.
"I knew she had nobody," Diaz said. "I kept thinking this family needs help and I had to look at it like, 'What if this was my family?' I had to be the best I could be for them."
A father of two young boys, Diaz resolved to treat the family as if it were his own. He requested permission to stay on as the CAO; the CAC consented. With the help of a translator and a friend of the widow's who traveled from out of state, Diaz was able to help her fill out all of the necessary paperwork, handle the logistics of relocating her family quickly, and coordinate details for her husband's memorial service and burial, including the international travel of relatives for the funeral.
"If you sincerely care, no matter what, it's going to be hard," he said. "But it helped me not to feel so bad to be moving around so much, to be able to help her with so much."
Diaz also volunteered to present the Soldier's posthumous awards to his family at the funeral, an act that allowed him to meet the Soldier's extended family and cement a "special bond" with the family that he said continues even now that they have relocated and his role in their recovery has come to an end.
"After doing this," he said, "I would do it again. Definitely."