how-the-department-of-defense-is-failing-some-survivors-of-our-fallen-service-members

War and death are inextricably linked; dealing with the death of its people is part of the nature of the military institution. Its unavoidability is also the reason that the way in which the Defense Department deals with death has to be impeccable.

Militaries have been informing service members’ families of a loved one’s passing and consoling them for centuries. In the Civil War, personalized letters extolled the decedent’s virtues, assuring kinfolk that the death wasn’t painful and was accepted with dignity and bravery. But these missives were the only option for notification then.

When technology evolved, notifications switched to telegrams during the Korean War and the early Vietnam days. Those messages were sympathetic, though clinical.

Amid the high casualty rates later in Vietnam, though, some parents complained that they weren’t getting enough information in those telegrams on how or why their loved ones died, so the Army began notifying families of their loved ones’ deaths by sending teams of soldiers to visit homes in-person. Within 72 hours of the news, those families were then visited by a “survivor assistance officer” to help with administrative requirements like funeral arrangements and receipt of benefits.

CACOs need more training — and service members’ families deserve for them to be dedicated wholly to their work.

Thus the modern Casualty Assistance Calls Officers program was born.

Today, CACOs are service members appointed by commands to make the initial in-person notifications to next of kin that there’s been a death. Within hours, CACOs must pivot from their primary duties — as logistics chiefs, infantry officers, data-network experts, etc. — and spend the next few days, weeks and even months providing support to families of the fallen. They are supposed to help people through the cumbersome military bureaucracy, including arranging travel to receive their loved ones’ bodies, completing paperwork for survivor benefits and providing updates on death investigations, among other duties.

CACOs are critical in an institution where thousands of people die every year from combat, illnesses, accidents and training errors. But for such essential support, CACOs need more training — and service members’ families deserve for them to be dedicated wholly to their work.

Right now, however, CACOs are chosen from whomever is available and of sufficient rank; seemingly anyone will do.

Each service has different casualty management procedures, based on Department of Defense-wide guidance. And although some training is required to perform as a CACO, that training just involves watching videos, all of which are available for anyone to watch.

Though many report good experiences, with some saying their CACOs will be a part of the family forever, that’s not guaranteed — and it should be.

Even that training doesn’t always happen as it should. One CACO told me, ”I didn’t even have the CACO course till after” he’d notified the next of kin, and didn’t sign the papers about completing it until after that; it’s not a normal requirement for most Marines. He recounted that another CACO had to seek mental health assistance after his duties, because he was so woefully unprepared for the family’s traumatic reaction to death.

Another senior Marine pointed out that the DOD hadn’t even updated their procedures since before the advent of social media.“Most of them are set up for failure,” he said. “Most of them are uneducated. … They’ve been through the basic CACO class and that’s it.”

By comparison, the military does prioritize training for other jobs that focus on the fallen. For instance, Marine Corps pallbearers serve a 30-month tour where their job is to conduct funerals at Arlington Cemetery; each service has dedicated teams.

As one former CACO asked me: “Why wouldn’t we put that much effort into CACOs?”

The effects on family members are unmistakable. Though many report good experiences, with some saying their CACOs will be a part of the family forever, that’s not guaranteed — and it should be.

Defense department policy hasn’t taken into account how our understanding of what a family is, and what “next of kin” means to us, has changed in the last 40 years.

One mother told me that her family’s CACO was inaccurate and misleading, as well as dismissive to her grieving husband, her son’s step-father, and her son’s girlfriend. That family received their son’s phone and wallet back a full seven months after his death; hastily wrapped in the same box, and left unmentioned by the CACO, was the engagement ring he’d bought to surprise his girlfriend. They’d had no idea before it arrived.

Other parents have told me about the pain of their CACOs barring them from seeing their sons’ bodies — or not explaining viewing options. “They didn’t give us a choice,” one told me. “They don’t know what we can handle and what we can’t handle. We’re Marine moms.”

And then there are the administrative failures to be expected from inadequate training, which compound problems that families may face. One family whose son died in a July 2020 amphibious assault vehicle training accident is still waiting to be reimbursed thousands of dollars in travel expenses they accumulated as they waited near his base for his body to be recovered.

In early May, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the causes of that accident; during it Peter Vienna, the father of Navy Corpsman Christopher “Bobby” Gnem, who died in the accident, pointedly told Congress that the military’s system of support for grieving families deserves review.

My own experience with it when my partner, Diego, was killed in combat wounded me deeply. No one from Diego’s command ever called because, though we lived together, we weren’t married; the lack of communication scarred me. I obsessively searched for information on how and why he died, first submitting Freedom of Information Act requests and combing through quarterly reports from U.S. Central Command and finally, in desperation, consulting a psychic medium for answers. One Marine who knew more about Diego’s death was eventually kind enough to give me snippets of data on how Diego died; in turn, I tolerated his sexual harassment.

Part of taking responsibility for service members’ deaths is handling all their survivors with empathy and respect.

Part of this, again, comes from the fact that defense department policy hasn’t taken into account how our understanding of what a family is, and what “next of kin” means to us, has changed in the last 40 years. If you don’t specify that significant others like me, step-parents, step-siblings, divorced spouses with whom you co-parent or close military buddies stationed far away must be notified in the event of your death, not only won’t they be notified, but they will never be entitled to any information. As one mother whose son died last year told me, “They treated our husbands that weren’t the biological fathers like crap. They treated the half-siblings like crap. That’s wrong. We’re a very blended family.”

It’s time to implement a victim-centered approach to bereavement notifications for military families and other loved ones, to better honor both those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and those who have lost them.

Casualty operations have undergone overhauls in the recent past: once in 1994, then again in 2006 and in 2008, based on the information collected in a 2007 Congressional hearing. After May’s congressional hearing, Bobby Gnem’s father, Peter Vienna, says he’s hopeful that another change could be in the offing; he’s spoken with the office of Rep. Jackie Spier’s, D-Calif., about his experience and suspects that more discussions will follow.

Ultimately how our armed forces care for the loved ones of those who die while serving is a reflection of our values. Part of taking responsibility for service members’ deaths is handling all their survivors with empathy and respect. Failing to do so inflicts a moral injury that damages survivors along with the military institution itself.

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