To truly honor fallen service members, we must do more for their loved ones after they leave.


War and death are inextricably linked; dealing with the death of its people is part of the nature of the military institution. Its inescapable nature is also the reason why the way in which the Ministry of Defense deals with death must be above reproach.

Members of the military have informed and consoled military families of the death of a loved one. In the American Civil War, personalized letters extolled the virtues of the deceased, assuring loved ones that death was not painful and was accepted with dignity and bravery. But these missives were the only notification option then.

As technology evolved, notifications switched to telegrams during the korean war and the the early days of Vietnam. These messages were sympathetic, although clinical.

Amid the high casualty rates later in Vietnam, however, some parents complained that they weren’t getting enough information in these telegrams about how or why their loved ones died, so the military started informing families of the deaths of loved ones by sending teams of soldiers to visit their homes in person. Within 72 hours of the news, these families were then visited by a “survivor aid worker” to help them with administrative requirements such as funeral arrangements and payment of benefits.

CACOs need more training – and military families deserve their full dedication to their job.

So the modern Victim assistance call agents program was born.

Today, CACOs are service members appointed by orders to make the initial notifications in person to the next of kin that there has been a death. In a few hours, CACOs must step down from their main functions – as logistics chiefs, infantry officers, data network experts, etc. – and spend the next few days, weeks and even months providing support to the families of the dead. They are supposed to help people get through heavy military bureaucracy, including arranging trips to receive the bodies of loved ones, filling out paperwork for survivor benefits, and providing updates on death investigations, between other tasks.

CACOs are essential in an institution where thousands of people die every year fights, illnesses, accidents and training mistakes. But for such essential support, CACOs need more training – and military families deserve their full dedication to their work.

At present, however, CACOs are selected from those available and of sufficient rank; apparently anyone will do.

Each department has different claims handling procedures, based on the guidelines of the Ministry of Defense. And while training is required to practice as a CACO, this training is just about watching videos, all of which are available for all watch.

While many report good experiences, with some claiming their CACOs will be part of the family forever, that isn’t guaranteed – and it should be.

Even this training does not always go as it should. A CACO told me, “I didn’t even take the CACO course until” he notified the next of kin, and only signed the papers after that, it’s not. a normal requirement for most Marines. He said another CEMA had to seek mental health help after his duty because he was unfortunately not prepared for the family’s traumatic reaction to death.

Another senior Navy official pointed out that the DOD did not even update its procedures before the advent of social media. “Most of them are checked,” he said. CACO basic course and that’s it.

In comparison, the military prioritizes training for other jobs that focus on the dead. For example, Marine Corps porters serve a 30 month tour where is their work to organize a funeral at Arlington Cemetery; each department has dedicated teams.

As a former CACO asked me, “Why don’t we put so much effort into CACOs?”

The effects on family members are undeniable. While many report good experiences, with some claiming their CACOs will be part of the family forever, it isn’t guaranteed – and it should be.

Defense Ministry policy has not taken into account how our understanding of what a family is and what “next of kin” means to us has changed over the past 40 years.

A mother told me that her family’s CACO was inaccurate and misleading, as well as dismissive of her grieving husband, her son’s stepfather, and her son’s girlfriend. This family received their son’s phone and wallet seven months after his death; The engagement ring he bought to surprise his girlfriend was hastily packed in the same box and left unmentioned by the CACO. They had no idea until he arrived.

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

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

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

My own experience when my partner, Diego, was killed in action, hurt me deeply. No one from Diego’s command ever called because, although we lived together, we weren’t married; the lack of communication marked me. I obsessively researched information on how and why he died, first submitting Freedom of Information Act requests and perusing US Central Command’s quarterly reports and finally, in desperation, consulting a psychic medium to get answers. A sailor who knew more about Diego’s death was finally kind enough to give me snippets of data on Diego’s death; I in turn tolerated his sexual harassment.

Part of the responsibility for the death of military personnel is to treat all of their survivors with empathy and respect.

Part of this, again, is that Defense Department policy has ignored how our understanding of what a family is and what “next of kin” means to us. us, has changed over the past 40 years. If you don’t specify that other important people like me, in-laws, brothers-in-law, divorced spouses with whom you co-parent or close military friends posted far away should be notified in the event of death, not only will they win. . will not be notified, but they will never be entitled to any information. As a mother told me whose son passed away last year, “They treated our husbands who weren’t biological fathers like crap. They treated the half-siblings like crap. It’s wrong. We are 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 those who made the ultimate sacrifice and those who lost them.

Relief operations have been subject to revisions in the recent past: once 1994, then again in 2006 and in 2008, on the basis of information collected in a Congress hearing 2007. After the May Congress hearing, Bobby Gnem’s father Peter Vienna says he hopes another change may be in sight; he spoke with MP Jackie Spier’s office, D-California, about his experience and suspects that further discussions will follow.

Ultimately, the way our armed forces care for the loved ones of those who die in service is a reflection of our values. Part of the responsibility for the death of military personnel is to treat all of their survivors with empathy and respect. Failure to do so inflicts moral injury which prejudices the survivors as well as the military institution itself.

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