Comforting Survivors: Priority One for Casualty Assistance Officers
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 26, 2003 The military's casualty assistance officers do their best to comfort and assist the next-of-kin of service members who've been wounded, killed or missing in action.
That's the message John Molino, the deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, delivered today to Pentagon reporters.
Assisting the families left behind is "our No. 1 concern," noted Molino, who also oversees military mortuary affairs.
Casualty assistance officers are active-duty officers or enlisted members, Molino explained, who've been trained to render assistance to relatives of service members killed, wounded or reported missing in action.
By policy, he continued, casualty assistance officers provide the details of death or wounds, comfort survivors and help them choose the type of interment, including arrangement of military honors. These officers also help survivors apply for Service Members' Group Life Insurance compensation and other benefits.
Service members record who they want contacted on their record of emergency data documents. Molino said casualty assistance officers notify those contacts in person within 24 hours of when the military finds out.
Primary next-of-kin get notified in person. These can be a surviving spouse or, if the service member is single, parents; secondary next-of- kin are normally a service member's parents, if he or she is married.
Secondary next-of-kin also get notified in person, he added, if the service member's death resulted from hostile or terrorist action.
Casualties' personal information, such as name, rank and hometown, cannot be released to the public until the appropriate family members have been notified, Molino emphasized.
"We are most concerned with maintaining our sensitivity to the families and the privacy of the families," he pointed out. But once survivors have been notified, there's no policy that prevents them from speaking to reporters.
Molino said he is "very pleased, impressed and grateful for the sensitivity the media has shown" for the surviving families of service members killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The military is responsible for providing accurate information to designated survivors, Molino noted, adding that families' dignity is also protected.
"We don't deal in rumors; we deal in the facts as we know them," Molino emphasized. "We are as honest with the family members as we possibly can be."
Overseas military service headquarters send word of casualties back to service-branch headquarters in Washington, he explained. The headquarters then notify regional commanders, who assign casualty assistance officers to notify the next-of-kin.
A pair of casualty assistance officers is normally dispatched to notify next-of-kin, Molino said.
"It is most important for emotional support to the family that there be a team," he noted.
Molino said chaplains or commanding officers, when possible, might be included on casualty assistance teams.
Or it can be any two individuals trained and "prepared to deliver this sad news," he concluded.
For information about service member survivor benefits, see http://dod.mil/militarypay/survivor/index.html.