I had the distinct honor to be a casualty assistance officer (CAO) as one of my final assignments before leaving the military. I was on rear detachment as my team didn’t deploy while most of our company had set off for Afghanistan. We, unfortunately, lost several men on that trip to Afghanistan.
It was early morning and on the phone was the company sergeant-major. A friend of mine had died in Afghanistan. He asked who we had available to be the casualty notification officer (CNO) and who we had available to be the CAO.
The mission of the casualty assistance officer (CAO) is to provide assistance to the grieving families of deceased military personnel, active duty and retired. The officer provides the final demonstration of our nation’s gratitude to those who faithfully defend our country in peace and war.
The casualty notification officer is the person who shows up at your door wearing their dress uniform. They are with the chaplain to notify the widow of what had happened. This typically takes place within four hours of the death. If that four-hour window is the middle of the night, they will wait, sometimes outside the house, until someone is awake and break the most devastating news to the family.
Bearers of Grim News
The sergeant-major asked who we had to be the CAO. In the back of my mind, I knew I was the one that made the most sense; I volunteered. Off I raced to get my uniform on, then to the Fort Bragg office to get all the needed info. I would arrive one hour after the widow was notified.
The widow had never met me before. I knew the soldier from work; hell, we were in the same hall for years. He was always in a good mood, first to help anyone and a consummate professional. He was a warrior.
You see, in the world of Special Operations, specifically within Special Forces, we all are one person removed from each other. Meaning that I may not know you; however, we know someone in common if given enough time. This is often true when meeting old SF guys at Charlie Mike’s or the local SF Association. This gives you an idea of just how small the community is.
I knocked on the widow’s door. A woman answered. She was sad, but by the look on her face, I could tell it wasn’t our widow. I walked into the home. I wanted to show her strength, professionalism, and compassion, as our Regiment had just received its newest Gold Star widow.
Special Forces Greatly Honor and Protect our Gold Star Wives
Special Forces holds our Gold Star wives very close to our hearts and will protect them at all costs.
I introduced myself formally, offered my condolences, and relieved the chaplain of his official duties for the time being. I had a tremendous amount of work that needed to be done immediately with her. She was still in shock from the news, but I could get her alone to handle the mountain of paperwork needed.
Hundreds of questions required to be answered, such as if she wanted a military funeral, where she wanted the funeral to be held, what account did she want money to go into, and many, many more.
So many people were available and at my disposal to help with anything I wanted.
When it was time to go to the funeral, Enterprise dropped off a car; then, the USO was in perfect working order. They met me at the airport and at all the gates to make it seamless. I didn’t have to do much but get her and the family in and out of the suburban. I’m forever thankful to the USO.
Dover Air Force was truly impressive. The Fisher House was incredible, and the family had only the best.
We went to the flight line. It was frigid cold. Soldiers stood for what seemed like hours waiting for the plane.
Then-Vice President Pence showed up and stood out in the cold as well. He stood motionless, stoic until it was his turn to pay respects to the widow and our fallen. Afterward, he took the time to shake every soldier’s hand. He was visibly saddened for our loss, on the brink of tears himself.
A Casualty Assistance Officer Helps the Widow for as Long Needed
For the next six months, I was by our widow’s side for anything she needed. I was at her home nearly daily. As the CAO, I am assigned to her until she no longer needs me. The widow signs a paper that relieves me of my official duties. It could have been one month or two years.
After about five-six months, I could tell she no longer needed me. She was back into her routine with the little ones and going about her life.
Our widow had suffered the most significant loss of her life and somehow managed to get up each day, strive, make the best of it, and continue living. A piece of her died that day with him. Something special that only they shared. He will always hold the most special parts of her heart, and he will never be forgotten.
Being her casualty assistance officer created a life-long bond between us. I was her crutch to help her into her next chapter of life. I can say with great honesty it was a terrible duty to perform. However, I’m so honored to have been able to do it and so grateful to be there for their family in a time of great need.