“Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” – President Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
FORT KNOX, Ky. (July 7, 2015) – The order of service is always the same: a eulogy for the deceased, three volleys of rifle fire and the sounding of taps followed by the solemn presentation of a folded flag to a grieving widow, mother or father.
These are the full military honors at the burial of an American Soldier. It is a scene re-enacted almost every day somewhere in the United States. But who organizes the ceremony, the honors and the consolation? And who is there to support the widow, the children and the bereaved Family when the funeral is over?
Wherever in America a Soldier is laid to rest, wherever a grieving Family or widow walks away from a graveside to pursue a life shadowed by the loss of a loved one, the Army is there. The interment of each Soldier and Family support through the funeral and beyond are being steered by some 200 men and women at the U.S. Army Human Resources Command Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, or CMAOC, on Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“The one constant reminder that retains precedent in our work is, no circumstance or situation is ever the same,” said CMAOC director Col. John A. Cooper. “We proceed in every case with an awareness that we are supporting living, breathing human beings whose loved one has made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our nation.”
“During wartime, every military Family lives in perpetual fear of the knock on the door that is accompanied by two service members in uniform,” said Col. James H. Fitzgerald, deputy to the adjutant general of the Army.
The first of many missions, in response to the death of a Soldier, is to identify and notify his or her next of kin. It is a primary task of the notification section of the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Branch, or CMAB, within CMAOC.
“We handle all the Army personnel – active Army, Army National Guard, Reserves – as long as they are on active duty,” said Roger Dray, chief of the casualty notifications section. “We also handle the other cases: Reservists who are on an active status or retirees and even dependents.”
Dray, a native of Delphos, Ohio, and graduate of Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Alabama, leads a team of fewer than 20, a marked reduction over the past several years.
“During the height of the conflict we had up close to 43; now we have 17 total. We operate three shifts, 24/7 operations. They work weekends and holidays,” he said.
One key element of the process is locating the Soldier’s designated next of kin. Sometimes it is fairly straightforward and other times it demands considerable research expertise.
“Each person working in here is a trusted agent. We are authorized to get into medical records, conduct local searches and everything like that to be able to locate next of kin,” Dray said.
Simultaneously, notification staff will contact one of 32 casualty assistance centers, or CACs, throughout the country and overseas to initiate the coordination of support between CMAOC and the on-the-ground casualty notification officer, or CNO, who will work in concert with the surviving Family members, he said.
THE NOTIFICATION PROCESS
“We contact the supporting CAC and provide them with the information. They in turn will go ahead and initiate the process with the CNO and the chaplain, to be able to go out and render notification,” Dray said.
One of many delicate tasks undertaken is to prepare a narrative the CNO will draw on when rendering the in-person, face-to-face notification of death to the next of kin.
“It is basically a brief synopsis of the circumstances. We don’t provide any gory details. All the scripts are prepared here. I will send them out to the CAC, which will give it to the notification officer,” Dray said. “They will memorize it or internalize it so they will know exactly what to say, but they will not read it from a sheet of paper or anything like that.”
In each case, the initial contact with next of kin always takes place in person.
“It is all face to face,” Dray said.
Neither the CNO nor the casualty assistance officer, or CAO, who will support the Family through the interment of their Soldier and the transition to survivorship, are selected by CMAOC. They are chosen and assigned by the regional CAC in whose area of responsibility the deceased’s survivors reside.
“Each CAC maintains a roster of everybody who is sergeant first class and above for enlisted, or captain and above for officers. They will contact them and say, we have an incident and we need a CNO,” Dray said.
Barbara Bonnell is the chief of the Fort Knox CAC, whose geographic area encompasses northern Kentucky and all or most of four other states. A native of LaFayette, Georgia, who calls Radcliff, Kentucky, home, she said CACs come under the direction and responsibility of U.S. Army Installation and Management Command. As such, CAC directors report to the garrison commander where they are located, but coordination with CMAOC is ongoing and mutually supportive, Bonnell said.
“We all work together to accomplish the same mission,” she said. “We work directly with the CAOs, we work directly with the Families. All of us are here to help the assistance officer provide help to that family member.”
“While HRC’s [Human Resources Command’s] CMAOC provides the technical expertise, it is the care and compassion displayed by the entire casualty assistance community, which consists of special CAC personnel at our installations and bases across the globe,” said Cooper, the CMAOC director.
“They don’t work for us, they work with us,” said Kevin Logan, CMAB deputy director. “It’s the people that make the casualty system, because we all work together to make it happen for the families.”
When a notification reaches Bonnell’s team, they know which unit to call. Once a particular Soldier is identified the CAC works directly with them, as do the CMAB staff at HRC.
Knowing the selected Soldier can help judge whether they are right for a particular family, Bonnell said.
“We have to kind of gauge, what are the Family dynamics? And we look to find someone who’s close to the Family because I don’t feel like we can properly take care of them if your assistance officer is four hours away. We need to have that strength that’s familiar and close to them so when they need help they reach out directly to them,” she said.
Once notification is complete and a CAO is working with the Family, Dray’s section passes responsibility to CMAB’s case management section, whose staff begin coordinating the Soldier’s burial, honors and benefits with the CAO.
BRINGING ALL OUR SOLDIERS HOME
“We do the initial, up-front casualty and mortuary mission for CMAOC,” said Tony Shafer, chief of the case management section, who hails from Zionsville, Indiana, and holds a bachelor of science from Indiana State University and a master’s from Western Kentucky University.
“When we get the heads up from notification, we will assign one of my 15 case managers, a primary and an alternate, to work an active-duty case to the time we inter the Soldier,” he said.
In the event of battlefield and overseas fatalities, which can often be anything but simple and straightforward, the demands and challenges are sometimes unknown.
“We do whatever it takes to get our boys and girls home,” case manager Brian Huss said. “Whatever it takes.”
“We usually reach out to the CAO within the first 24-48 hours after the death has occurred,” said case manager Angela Nelson, a native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
“We are there as a sounding board and as a resource of information, for when that Soldier is going to arrive at our Dover Port Mortuary. When he’s going to ship home, we monitor their status. How do they look? Are they going to be viewable?” she said.
The condition of a Soldier’s remains is one of a host of potentially sensitive matters a CAO must explain to the Family, and the CMAB case managers are on hand to support them through the difficult moments.
“I have to give the remains summary to the CAO, who has to give it to the mom or to the wife. We can’t skip it. We can’t obfuscate it,” said Huss, a native of Green Springs, Ohio, and a graduate of Bowling Green State University.
“You have to be able to take medical terms and put it in layman’s terms and explain it in a delicate way,” case manager Roscoe Tidwell said.
“So they can be as best prepared as they can be for what’s coming back,” Nelson said. “It’s a closure issue. So they can confidently know that even though they can’t see their face, they know it’s their loved one. That is probably the hardest part of this job.”
“We will never tell you that you can’t see a Soldier, because he or she is yours. It is going to be between you and the funeral director. If they refuse, we have no control over that. If the next of kin insists, the Army will never say no,” Huss said.
HONORING THE WISHES OF THE FALLEN
Shafer said many of the actions taken in the initial stages of support are both time sensitive and potentially disturbing to the survivors, demanding compassion and tact from the entire team. That includes payment of a lump sum death gratuity to the Family within 72 hours and establishing who has been designated by the Soldier to be their PADD, or person authorized to direct disposition. That determination is critical, since the authorized person will make binding decisions for a host of actions.
“The PADD is crucial to this process,” Shafer said. “Ensuring we get the DA Form 7302, which is the disposition form, is key to us.”
Negotiating Family sensitivities and dealing with occasionally unexpected repercussions can complicate the burial and support process for Soldiers and their survivors. Unsettled Family dynamics and the value of benefits can sometimes lead to contention, he said.
“Family situations will drive the train,” said Logan, the CMAB deputy. “There is a minimum of a half million dollars at stake and money changes people; that’s a fact. Since Soldiers became entitled to direct to whom their money would go, it has created diverse challenges. We abide by what the Soldier wanted. That’s honoring the Soldier, to us.”
“Our most dignified approach to honoring our fallen and caring for the survivors requires a specialized approach every time,” Cooper said.
“The challenge our team members face is applying that special attention within the regulatory parameters we have been given and I believe we do so through an extraordinary team effort, unbeknownst to the Family and without any degradation of service. That is what makes the CMAOC team so unique,” he said.
“The primary thing is, you are going to have dignity and respect for the Soldier and whatever the Family wants, in accordance with law and regulations. We work to make that happen,” said Tidwell, a Louisville, Kentucky, native, educated at Eastern Kentucky University.
At the same time Shafer’s case managers are working with the CAO to arrange interment, Gerald Henson’s casualty support section works behind the scene to ensure the deceased’s records are in order and that life insurance and all due benefits are being processed for the survivors.
“We go to the state and get the death certificates for the family. We process their survivor benefits, which is taking them from a spouse to a survivor. We want that to happen within a 30-day period,” he said.
The aim is to ensure there is no break in financial support to the Soldier’s Family. There are presently 22 working in the section, while at the peak of combat operations in Iraq there were 60.
“The active-duty deaths have fallen. When I got here in 2010 we were averaging 89 a month and now we’re down to 36,” said Henson, a native of Morrilton, Arkansas, and graduate of Central Texas College in Killeen.
The section certifies approximately $150 million worth of life insurance payments semi-annually. Three benefit coordinators work with Families to explain and expedite the processing of various benefits. Seven analysts process records for life insurance, survivor benefits, military transcripts of record and other key documents. Three case reviewers check post-processing records to ensure payments are proper and complete, he said.
Additionally, three staffers are dedicated to serving the non-active, veteran community, Henson said. In 2011, casualty support assisted 43,000 Families, the majority of them the survivors of aged veterans. That support can literally stretch across generations; for instance, in the case of service members, who die with an infant or young children. When those children grow up, 20 years later, they will come back to HRC for help in filing for Montgomery or 9/11 GI Bill benefits.
“So we’ll have their case forever,” he said.
The casualty support section also provides survivors with a “Days Ahead” binder, a collection of documents and information to guide them through upcoming milestones, and to collect and organize the large number of documents accrued in the wake of their loved one’s death.
Once a Soldier has been interred, the case management section reviews all related documents for completeness, working with an individual checklist of 49 tasks, Shafer said.
“It is not all-encompassing, but it definitely helps us focus on the key events,” he said.
“Interment happens often within a week or so,” Tidwell said. “At about the 30-45 day mark is when the case will go to transition. But cases don’t actually ever close. The transition team will forward each case to Survivor Outreach Services [SOS}, and they’ll have an SOS coordinator for as long as they want.”
“Somebody from the Army is going to be there to support you from day one to however long you need,” Nelson said. “No Family member is ever going to be left behind, just as no Soldier is ever going to be left behind.”
“They have a whole new section of case managers who will work the case from interment to eight to 12 months down the road, working with the CACs, working with the CAOs, to ensure the primary and secondary next of kin all receive the benefits and entitlements they so truly deserve,” Shafer said.
As the case management support moves through the several CMAB sections, the staff continues to provide information and support to the CAO as he or she guides the family’s transition to survivorship.
“Our job, at the end of the day, is to make their job as seamless as possible for the benefit of the next of kin,” Nelson said. “They are already grieving. They are already in such an overwhelmed state of mind. You want to make sure you are presenting all the information as best you can. There’s no such thing as a normal case.”
HONORING AMERICAN WARRIORS PAST AND PRESENT
Bonnell said the Fort Knox CAC tasks about 1,100 funeral honors missions monthly, mostly for veterans or retirees. The funeral teams come either from Fort Knox, including details from HRC, or from Guard and Reserve units within the five-state area of responsibility. The CAC acts as the CAO, advising the Department of the Army a Soldier has passed on, generating benefit packets and linking survivors to Veterans Affairs and other support providers.
“We just don’t have the manpower to give them a casualty assistance officer for retirees, so the CAC serves as their assistance officer,” said Bonnell. “CMAOC is there if we need some help with something. The sections over there are very good.”
She said her staff particularly benefits from the records review provided by CMAB’s transition section. “With the volumes that all the CACs have, we need that extra set of eyes. That has been invaluable for the CAC to make sure we don’t miss anything,” she said.
“We’re with them from day one till forever,” Henson said.
“We always are dealing with families and the fallen, but it’s not necessarily because of a combat event. The biggest percentage right now is stateside and it’s mostly self-inflicted,” Bonnell said.
“We see a lot of suicide cases, unfortunately,” Shafer said. “Nobody can tell me we don’t have a suicide issue across our nation and across the Department of Defense. We are seeing it.”
“My position is, when you see a Soldier and he is missing a limb, he’s hurt and you can see that. But Soldiers sometimes hurt internally and you don’t necessarily see that from the outside,” Bonnell said.
“I’ll never know what is in their head or in their heart, I don’t know what their personal issues may be. I just know that at that moment they hurt. I have no judgment on whether I think it was right or wrong. I just don’t because I know it isn’t mine to call,” she said.
It is a common misconception that Soldiers who take their own lives have somehow disenfranchised their survivors of benefits. Not true, Bonnell said. The survivors will receive all the support and benefits to which their loved one’s service entitles them.
“We just respect the fact that they were Soldiers. That’s all I need to know. I am here to honor the Soldier by taking care of his or her Family. And do that the best way we can,” she said.
From the case-management perspective, completing a case and passing the family on to Survivor Outreach Services and Veterans Affairs for delivery of benefits can sometimes be delayed, depending on the circumstances of the death, by required investigations, according to Logan.
“There is no timeline on an investigation. Some take a couple of weeks, others take months to complete. A Family is entitled to get a copy of an investigation. It will be redacted, but they’re still entitled to get a copy. So until that investigation is complete, we can’t pass that case off to SOS,” he said.
The line of duty and fatal incidents brief cells within CMAB must review the cause of death in cases involving operational issues. Line-of-duty investigations are undertaken by the Soldier’s unit to determine responsibility for their death. That determination can affect benefit entitlements such as dependent indemnity compensation, a monthly stipend to which some survivors are entitled, said Theresa Lever, chief of CMAOC’s Policy, Plans and Training Branch.
Final determinations are actually made by Veterans Affairs, but are based on the line-of-duty cell’s findings, she said.
“That Family is going to be briefed by the brigade commander,” Logan said. “And all suicides get a 15-6 investigation and they also get a Family brief.”
“It is great to have the line-of-duty section there so we can tell the Family. You are going to know exactly what happened to your son or daughter. But please understand it’s not going to happen overnight,” Nelson said. “There’s the Army pace and there’s the Family pace. They’re not always the same, but that’s where communication between the CAC, the CAO and us with the next of kin really comes into play. Because at the end of the day, all the Family wants is their loved one home.”