FORT KNOX, Ky. —
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, Fort Knox.
"The one constant reminder that retains precedent in our work is, no circumstance or situation is ever the same," said Col. John A. Cooper, CMAOC director. "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."
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 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 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 throughout the country and overseas to initiate the coordination of support between CMAOC and the on-the-ground casualty notification officer, who will work in concert with the surviving Family members, he said.
"We contact the supporting [Casualty Assistance Center] and provide them with the information. They in turn will go ahead and initiate the process with the [casualty notification officer] 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 that the casualty notification officer will draw on when rendering the 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 [Casualty Assistance Center], 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 face-to-face.
The casualty notification officer and the casualty assistance officer, who support the Family through the interment of their Soldier and the transition to survivorship, are selected by the regional Casualty Assistance Center in whose area of responsibility the deceased's survivors reside.
"Each [Casualty Assistance Center] maintains a roster of everybody who is sergeant first class and above for enlisted, or captain and above for officers," Dray said.
Barbara Bonnell is the chief of the Fort Knox Casualty Assistance Center, whose geographic area encompasses northern Kentucky and all or most of four other states. Casualty Assistance Centers come under the direction and responsibility of U.S. Army Installation and Management Command. As such, Casualty Assistance Center directors report to the garrison commander where they are located, but coordination with CMAOC is ongoing and mutually supportive.
"We all work together to accomplish the same mission," Bonnell said. "We work directly with the [casualty assistance officers], 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 CMAOC provides the technical expertise, it is the care and compassion displayed by the entire casualty assistance community, which consists of special [Casualty Assistance Center] personnel at our installations and bases across the globe," Cooper said.
When a notification reaches Bonnell's team, they know which unit to call. Once a particular Soldier is identified the Casualty Assistance Center works directly with them, as do the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Branch deputy 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 casualty assistance officer is working with the Family, Dray's section passes responsibility to Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Branch's case management section, whose staff begin coordinating the Soldier's burial, honors and benefits with the casualty assistance officer.
Bringing all Soldiers home
"We do the initial, up-front casualty and mortuary mission for CMAOC," said Tony Shafer, chief of the case management section. "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."
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 [casualty assistance officer] within the first 24-48 hours after the death has occurred," said case manager Angela Nelson. "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?"
The condition of a Soldier's remains is one of a host of potentially sensitive matters a casualty assistance officer must explain to the Family, and the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Branch case managers are on hand to support them through the difficult moments.
"I have to give the remains summary to the [casualty assistance officer], who has to give it to the mom or to the wife. We can't skip it. We can't obfuscate it," Huss said.
"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.