By Capt. David Gasperson
| 335th Signal Command (Theater) | June 15, 2019
U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers with the 335th Signal Command (Theater) watch a video during a Casualty Notification and Assistance Course at the headquarters in East Point, Georgia, June 11, 2019. The Army provides training to prepare casualty notification and assistance officers for the emotional aftereffects of bearing sad tidings. (Photo by Capt. David Gasperson)
"The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret."
Those words—confirming a Family's worst fears—are some of the toughest that a Soldier will utter and delivering a death notification is one of the hardest duties they're asked to do.
"It's an emotional event. When you knock on that door—if handled poorly—you can shatter a family and break their confidence in our Army," Eddie Miles warned the class.
Miles, a training instructor with the Fort Benning Casualty Assistance Center (CAC), certified 10 U.S. Army and Army Reserve Soldiers to serve as Casualty Notification and Casualty Assistance Officers during a three-day class at the 335th Signal Command (Theater) Headquarters in East Point June 12-14.
She's worked in casualty assistance for 17 years and trained hundreds of Soldiers for this solemn task.
SEPARATE BUT IMPORTANT DUTIES
The Army restricts these duties to Sergeant 1st Class, Captain, Chief Warrant Officer 2 and above. The officer assigned to a Family is always equal to or higher than the rank of the deceased.
Casualty Assistance Centers dispatch a Casualty Notification Officer and chaplain immediately after verifying a Soldier's death. This team shares the grim news with the Family.
Casualty Assistance Officers take over after the notification and care for the bereaved by assisting with funeral arrangements, scheduling appointments with various agencies, and making sure the designated beneficiaries receive their benefits, entitlements and the personal items of their loved ones.
COMPASSION AND EMPATHY
Since Vietnam, the Department of Defense requires that a uniformed service member make casualty notifications in person.
This stems from an observation made by Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff during World War II:
"There's no more effective way of creating bitter enemies of the Army than by failing to do everything we can possibly do in a time of bereavement, nor is there a more effective way of making friends for the Army than by showing we are personally interested in every casualty which occurs."
The Army has worked to improve the training used to prepare casualty notification and assistance officers for the emotional aftereffects of bearing sad tidings. It relies on the Army Reserve and Army National Guard to accomplish this mission.
Through updated scenario-based videos, open discussion and role-playing, Soldiers learn to handle the emotional tasks and assist Army Families during a difficult time.
Students watched a vignette featuring a mom, reading a heartfelt letter to the sergeant who told her that her son died in a training accident. The gravity of their new duty was on their faces.
The enhanced training stresses empathy from beginning to end, and Miles instructed Soldiers how to foster a positive relationship between the Army and the bereaved during a difficult time.
"You won't always know what to expect in these situations," she told students.
"Dealing with their anger and grief. These are the hardest parts of this job, but our mission is to show the bereaved that the Army will never leave a fallen comrade and we will always be there to support the family, wherever they are."
AFTER NOTIFICATION: HEALING BEGINS
Casualty Notification Officers don't expect to build relationships with the families that they notify, but some do.
"When you do the notification, it's not a happy time," You represent the Army and you're delivering the worst news to a family," Miles said. "It's hard, but what you are doing is honoring the Soldier by doing the very best you can to deliver compassionate, though harrowing news."
Casualty Assistance Officers, on the other hand, often bond with Families, and these relationships can last years. They are the Army's face of support and guidance through the Families' grieving process.
When assigned a case, the casualty is the priority and assistance officers are relieved of their primary duties to be available to the Families as needed.
"You drop everything and focus on that family," said Lt. Col. James Bush, chief of operations at the 335th Signal Command (Theater). "They have so many decisions to make after the loss of their Soldier, and that can be overwhelming,"
Bush first took the training in 2017 but attended to benefit from the updated training material.
"It's tough but rewarding because you are helping a family and showing that the Army cares," Bush told the class.
"It makes me feel proud to take care of a fellow Soldier. I would want somebody to do that for me. We're Soldiers. We take care of our own."
ABOUT THE FORT BENNING CASUALTY AREA COMMAND
The Fort Benning's Casualty Area Command services 70 counties in Georgia and 11 counties in Alabama. For Soldiers serving on active duty, Fort Benning Casualty will coordinate notification to Next of Kin located in their Casualty Area Command area.
Casualty Operations support is available seven days a week and 24 hours a day. Upon receipt of information about the death of an eligible Soldier, the Casualty Office will notify HRC through the casualty reporting system.
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