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DoD News Briefing on Casualty Notification

NEWS TRANSCRIPT from the United States Department of Defense

DoD News Briefing John Molino, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy Wednesday, March 26, 2003

(Mr. Molino is the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy and conducts a briefing on Casualty Notification. Also participating was Bryan Whitman, Deputy ASD(PA))

Whitman: Over the past couple of days, there's been a growing interest in -- and, quite frankly, some misunderstanding -- in the department's next-of-kin notification process. This afternoon John Molino, the deputy undersecretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, has joined us. He's responsible for the department's casualty and mortuary affairs policy, among other things, and today he's been kind enough to come down here and spend some time with you to kind of walk you through and give you a better understanding of the process that we go through when notifying families of a death of a service member.

And so with that, sir?

Molino: Thanks very much, and good afternoon, everyone.

I have in this presentation six substantive slides. So I'll go through them, and then I'll be happy to take any questions you might have. And then, at the end, we'll have pieces of paper to hand out, a fact sheets that summarizes what I say, some references to web sites which are also available to casualty assistance officers, and then a summary sheet on compensation that survivors are entitled to after they're notified of the death of a loved one.

So the first slide, please.

This is a summary of the principles of our policy. The policy for casualty notification focuses on the families. Families are our number-one concern -- the families that are left behind. We want to make sure that we give an accurate accounting of the death to the family members, and so we don't deal in rumors, we deal in the facts as we know them, and we are as honest with the family members as we possibly can be.

And you see the last bullet that says, "No information is released." What I mean there is no personal information. This does not interfere with the numeric information that might be released to you by the Public Affairs Office when they tell you how many casualties there have been.

Next slide, please.

Who do we notify? It's our policy that we would notify the primary next of kin, and typically that would be the surviving spouse. In the case of a single service member, it would be the parents. We also notify the secondary next of kin if the death was caused by hostile action or by a terrorist attack.

We sometimes experience delays in notification because of this policy, but we feel it's important that the secondary next of kin hear it in person from us when at all possible. There are times when this is delayed, and I'll get into that a little bit later with some explanation of that, but I think you'll see it's fairly reasonable.

Who does the notification?

Next slide, please.

The military service headquarters are responsible for the notifications within their service. And what happens is the report will flow through the theater back to the headquarters element in Washington. It will then, based on a regional organization, go to a region, go to an organization commander, who will identify the individual who will serve as the casualty notification individual, whether it be officer or enlisted. As a rule, we encourage our casualty notification officers to not go to a house alone. It is most important that for emotional support to the family that there be a team. Usually -- and many of you have seen it in TV and in the movies where there's a notification officer and a chaplain -- that's ideal. Very often, an organization commander will accompany when that's geographically possible. But it doesn't have to be either one of or both of those people. It can just be any two individuals who are prepared to deliver this sad news.

Next slide, please.

As I mentioned or alluded to before, there are delays occasionally. Prior to the deployment of any service member, they procedurally will review their record of emergency data. It is not unheard of to have information transposed. It is not unheard of to have service members who are caught up with other things say, "Yes, that's accurate," and we find out it's not when we need the information most.

The other thing that happens very often is next of kin is not available. A service member thought they'd be at home, but they are, indeed, not at home. Maybe the spouse went to her mother's house while the service member was deployed. We also have had secondary next of kin who are on vacation, planned vacations, and we have to find out, in some cases, where the cruise is to go find that person. And we have anecdotal stories of notification officers who -- up in Alaska who actually had to take a biplane to a boat to a dog sled to get to the next-of-kin, who were in a very, very remote area. But we make every effort to make that happen. And of course, we withhold that information until we do make the next of kin notification.

And needless to say, sometimes we have unfortunate family situations, where there may have been a divorce and there may actually be some hostility between the parents, and so we have to deal with that in the most sensitive manner we possibly can.

Our guiding principles are shown on the next slide, please.

And again, I stress -- I think at least two of these bullets talk about the families. That's where we go first. We are most concerned with maintaining our sensitivity to the families and the privacy of the families. If the family wants to go to the media, that certainly is their choice. We don't advise either way in that regard. But we want to make sure that the family is advised first before any action of that nature is taken.

And then, of course, if the family should have any follow-on requests, we try to accommodate them to the extent we possibly can.

And finally, the final slide is that there's a role for you folks as well in this. And I must say, to date, we've been very pleased and very impressed, and we're very grateful for the sensitivity that the media has shown in instances where there have been casualties. You've certainly been sensitive to the families' needs, and the families that I have seen interviewed and -- on the media certainly have given me the impression that they wanted to be interviewed and were not being coerced by any stretch of the imagination.

But I would ask you to remain judicious and certainly, at all costs, to respect the privacy of those family members that want to keep this information private.

And my final slide is just a photograph, because I promised you only six slides of substance, and that would be the seventh one if I did.

The information paper we'll give you, again, has the information I've given you in summary. And it also has a series of websites on the back that we refer our assistance officers to if they need additional information. And we also have a summary sheet of the compensation that's available. I have experts in all of those fields sitting to my left, so if you ask me anything that's really hard, I will turn to them for assistance. But I welcome any questions you might have, if you should have any. Yes, sir?

Q: Does this process have to be completed before a casualty can be counted in the number of casualties, or are you only talking about waiting to release the names?

Molino: The short answer is no. The public affairs folks will release the numbers, consistent with their current policies, even if we have not made the notification yet. They will not, however, issue that press release that has the name, the rank, the service and the home state until the notification's made.

Yes, sir?

Q: Has this policy or procedure changed in any substantive way over the course of the last few decades?

Molino: Well, I may look older than I am, but I can't go back a few decades. But I can go back at least through Desert Storm, and this has been -- for the last 12, 15 years, this has been the procedure.


Q: In past conflicts, the media's been able to cover the bodies returning back to the U.S. via Dover. And from our understanding now, it doesn't look like that's going to be the case. Can you discuss why or why not that's --

Molino: If memory serves me right, the coverage that I have seen of bodies being returned is in Europe, when you see them arrive at Ramstein. I don't remember more than one or two, which were exceptions to the rule, at Dover. The nature and role of Dover is often misunderstood, and this -- I apologize, this gets out of the casualty notification and into the handling, the Mortuary Affairs handling, but I'll address it because I think it's a fair question and it's an opportunity to get that out in the open.

The function of Dover is a port mortuary facility. During Vietnam, we had East Coast and West Coast port mortuary facilities. We now only have Dover for the country.

A body is prepared in the briefest and most expedient manner on the battlefield for transportation, and then the remains are transported to Dover where exams are conducted, if forensic exams are required, and the remains are fully prepared to be transported to the location of choice of the family -- usually it's a funeral home.

The activity that goes on at Dover is clinical in nature. There's no ceremonial functions there. And in fact, it's policy that there will not be arrival ceremonies of anything of a ceremonial nature at Dover. Now, that policy has been granted exceptions on occasion in specific cases. But that's the rule of thumb, and it really is to drive home the role of what Dover is supposed to do. And then those honors, which are certainly fitting, should be done elsewhere at a more appropriate time when family and friends and media and military units can be assembled for that purpose.

So what you'll normally see is -- what normally goes on at Dover is the airplane will land and an ambulance will pull up to the back of the airplane, and an Air Force Honor Guard, or another service honor guard, consisting of pall bearers and a non-commissioned officer in charge -- or an officer in charge, will retrieve the casket, place it into the ambulance. It will be driven to the mortuary facility in the same way -- in a dignified manner, transported into the mortuary facility. And then the activities of a mortuary would go on there.

And so it's to make that distinction between the clinical and the ceremonial, that we're trying to keep that distance. Sometimes that gives an air of mystique to what goes on there, but it purely is science and the mortuary business that goes on there.

I hope that answers the question.

Q: It does. It does. And if I could just follow up with a question. I don't want to press the point too much, but there are some that say it's a -- all a political decision. Do you have any response to those who would say it's a political reason that we're not allowed to see these transported?

Molino: No, I don't think it's politics at all. I think it's more again the focus of the dignity of the individual who was killed in action, to have this casket that is used for transport. It's draped in a flag, and it's treated with every degree of dignity and brought into the mortuary. It's -- I'm not quite sure what political end that would serve. If anything, it's trying to take the politics out of it, I think, though.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: The -- going back to Ramstein, then, have you changed policy on the media access to the -- going to Ramstein?

Molino: I don't know what the policy is on media access to Ramstein.

Q: (Off mike) -- just cut off totally.

Whitman: We -- we can discuss politics at a later time. This is about the casualty notification process, though.

Molino: Carrie.

Q: When it comes to service members who are injured or missing in action, how does the notification differ? Are there procedures that are --

Molino: No, it's the same. Missing in action or injured are considered in the same way. We notify, we go through the notification procedure. And, of course, as you highlight -- the presumption there is it's a hostile activity or in the combat zone, and then we would also notify secondary next of kin. If you have injured service members at their domestic base, the secondary next of kin notification is not done. But in the cases I think you're referring to, we do both primary and secondary.

Yes, sir.

Q: Sir, can you talk a little about what happens after a family is notified, how long the CACOs stay with the family, what sort of services they're providing?

Molino: Sure, I'd be happy to. The Casualty Assistance Officer is assigned to be with the family and to provide a vast array of services that focus on the needs as the continuum of time changes those needs. So the most immediate, pressing need, of course, is information about the casualty, about the loved one. We then get into information about when the remains would be returned to the country. The Casualty Assistance Officer is trying to obtain from the family what their desires would be regarding final resting place and the kind of service they'd like to do. When that is known, we would facilitate that with the local funeral director. It then will move on to the compensation and to the amount of money that the family would be entitled to, the purposes of those funds.

The Casualty Assistance Officer will stay with that family through the entire process, at least through interment. Many families continue to need help. Some have a certain level of sophistication, others do not. Others, despite their level of sophistication, say, "I'd like you to help me out just a little more. I need a little more help with insurance or I need a little more help with something else." And the assistance officer will stay with the family and stay in touch with the family throughout.

What happens, and what we saw happen, for instance, with the attack on the Pentagon, is the casualty assistance officers just about become part of the family. And it is not uncommon to see in some cases where they suddenly start going to the family reunions that are years after the tragic event, just because that bond becomes so tight.

And we do all we can to ensure that the casualty assistance officer receives all the necessary training, and in addition to that, that there are outlets, both Internet outlets and 24-hour, seven days a week telephonic outlets where we can provide answers to any questions for any kind of a contingency that might come up.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Could you go a little bit into the training that the casualty assistance officers receive and where they -- where do they come from?

Molino: Sure. They come from the ranks. And the rule of thumb is that the casualty assistance officer will be a rank equivalent to or greater than the casualty -- the deceased service member. They are trained by their services so that their training is consistent with those service customs and traditions. And indeed, the notification is made, unless there is a dramatic departure for logistical reasons or geographic reasons, by a member of the parent service that the casualty belonged. They are trained by their service. Some are done with pamphlets, some are done with Internet support, some are done one on one -- some of the training is each of these things. And then at the moment an individual is alerted that they, indeed, must go forth and perform this function, the service ensures that they have these documents so that they're current on it, and would give a quick refresher and a quick reference to a website so that any kind of side questions that might -- lingering doubt that might be in an individual's mind can be addressed.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Does the fact that there are embedded reporters who can now report on casualties immediately, does that have any effect on the whole notification process?

Molino: It hasn't thus far, but it certainly makes it a challenge for both the embedded reporter and for the service to ensure that we do this in the most expedient and expeditious manner possible. The services actually have used as a benchmark within 24 hours to get notification to a family. So we can't really accelerate that to any great degree. And I know that the Public Affairs guidance to embedded reporters is to wait 72 hours, so we should be covered and have a margin before any names are discussed by the embedded reporters. But it's the professionalism of those reporters that have kept this as well done as it has been thus far.

Yes, sir?

Q: Do the CACO's have any special instructions that they give to the families in terms of warnings about what they might see on TV, in terms of their loved one? I'll try to explain it a little better. Because of the fast-paced television coverage, and I'm guessing most of these families don't have any experience in what they're about to encounter, do they explain to the families that they may see some visuals -- do they prepare them for what they might see on TV?

Molino: The short answer, I think, would have to be no, because the casualty assistance officers are not media professionals and are really not prepared to give that kind of media advice. But I think what I have found, and I think it's probably universally true -- and I remember a report on NBC where the woman of the first -- the mother of the first casualty actually did an in-her-own-words segment. And what she said was that the ability to report so immediately and the ability to have embedded reporters is a wonderful thing, and the science that makes it happen is wonderful, she said, "but for those of us who have sons and daughters in the theater, it's killing us." And I think in that sense, when they see the activity, it can be miles away from where their son or daughter is, but it doesn't matter because the relationship there is that could be -- that could be Johnny or that could be Susie.

I think what you'll find is, when families are notified of this, they probably get away from the TV for a while. That's why we try to have a chaplain with them, to give them some spiritual and emotional support and to kind of bolster them up a little bit. Some of the people, some of the parents I've heard interviewed, I am startled at the composure that they've been able to exhibit. But I think those are the ones who are ready to go forward to the media. I think those who wanted to have a private moment, I think y'all have respected their privacy and may never go to their house because they just aren't ready. I don't see any -- thus far, I don't see any taking advantage or exploiting of these people. And I would ask, as we said in the slide, that y'all not do that, because it just -- you're right; these people are not prepared, and it just wouldn't be fair to do that to them.

Q: Are there any plans in the future maybe to incorporate that into the program at all?

Molino: I don't know. I would certainly think about it, based on your question. But at this point, I'm not quite sure how I make a casualty assistance officer versed enough to give that kind of advice.

The thing we don't do is we don't say, "What you ought to do is go out and be interviewed by the press and write a book and get yourself interviewed and get on TV." And likewise we don't say, "You need to avoid the TV and the media, because they're all awful and they're just going to exploit you." We don't go either way. We try to get the family emotionally stable, to the extent we can, and they seem to be able to make that other decision for themselves.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Two-part: The casualty assistance officers -- do they volunteer for this, as they say, to become one and for the training?

Molino: Certainly an individual can say, "I'd be willing to do that." But anyone who is on active duty is subject to be called to serve in that role.

Q: What if they don't want to?

Molino: You know, being on active duty requires you to do a lot of things that you probably never though you'd be capable of doing.

I do think that if an individual felt that there was something in their personality, for instance, that would make them less than suitable as a casualty assistance officer, they would be mature enough to express that to a commander, and a commander would note that. I also think that a commander, looking at his or her array of service members, might already know in their mind that they're not going to pick a certain person to perform this role, because they just don't think they would -- they have the personal characteristics to perform adequately -- again, the focus being on the family and the receiver of this assistance.

Q: And the last question: The death resulting from hostile or terrorist acts that requires you to go to a secondary -- does that delay the release of the name, or do you release it once the primaries are notified? Can you make the --

Molino: You delay the release of the name, yes. What we find by the way -- it is not uncharacteristic to find that when the -- when we show up to give the notification to the secondary next of kin, it'll come as no surprise to you that the primary has telephoned already with the bad news. But we do delay release of the name until they're both notified.

Sir, you had your hand up for --

Q: Yeah. Are you finding that there's a shortage of chaplains to accompany the officers, since there is in the service a shortage of them?

Molino: The services do have a shortage of chaplains. That's true. But as I stated earlier, we don't require that a chaplain go with the notification officer. If the chaplain's available, that's ideal. If the commander is available, even better. But -- the three of them can go. But if a pair of service members goes to make the notification, we think that's adequate and we do not have a chaplain. And of course, one of -- when that happens, even when a chaplain is present, one of the first phone calls made is usually to the family's pastor or priest or rabbi to get them in the house.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Do you have a total count military-wide on the number of casualty assistance officers? And when they arrive at a home, what do they physically bring with them? You mentioned pamphlets. Do they bring a letter from the commanding officer, anything else?

Molino: No, the total number of people to be casualty notification or assistance officer can literally range as many as are on active duty. Because an extreme is we would go to anyone on active duty if we had to make the notification. We would not delay notification because of some reason like that. So, that number is almost endless.

The -- what they bring with them is the casualty report as we have it at that point. And the casualty report normally will have the circumstances surrounding the casualty. And sometimes they will say, "This is what we know -- this is what we believe to be the truth, this is what we know." And as the information gets more refined, they will refine the information with the family. But once we know for certain that that individual is, indeed, the casualty, we will make the notification with the information available.

The pamphlets -- I don't want to mislead you -- the pamphlets and things like that that I mentioned refer to those training materials that prepare a casualty officer to perform in that role. It's not what they leave behind.

And then, as the relationship matures with the casualty assistance officer and the family, he or she will begin to bring those papers that refer to the compensation that's -- to which they're eligible and any other pieces of information; eventually, personal effects, things like that.

Q: There's not always a letter from the commanding officer at some point?

Molino: The letter from the commander, I'm certain, follows. But we're not going to delay notification. For instance, if someone on the West Coast has a son or daughter who's assigned to a unit on the East Coast, that's where the commander is. We're going to get someone on the West coast to do that notification, and the rest of that can follow.


Q: I just want to clarify one thing. If the notification is delivered to the primary next of kin and they make a phone call to secondary next of kin, is there not a physical interaction with, say, for example, the parents in that instance? Is there not any sort of personal contact between a casualty assistance officer or someone from the military to the parents if they receive word from, say, a spouse?

Molino: Oh, no, we'll continue to do that. We'll continue with the notification process. And usually when that happens, we'll learn that the telephone call was made when the notification is made to secondary, and they'll say, "We already know. We got a phone call from the primary."

Q: But even that in that case, you don't require a personal visit to the parents simply to share information, make them aware of resources available?

Molino: Oh, no, we do. We do. That's ongoing simultaneously. So what usually happens, as I said, is we find out that they already know about it because the primary has been notified, a phone call has been made, and then the secondary shows up. And ideally, it would happen so close together that it would be like that, it would be virtually hours apart, if even that long.


Q: Is the casualty report all that's brought in the first visit, or is there a flag and other things brought --

Molino: No, the flag that you see is presented at the internment, and it's the flag that covers the casket, and it's folded by the folks doing -- performing the military funeral honors and presented to the next of kin.

So yes, at the first meeting, if you will, it is only information that we deliver and, of course, the ability to console people. And to be very frank with you, if we brought a lot of paperwork, even if we had that much, the family doesn't want that right just yet. I mean, what they want is just a quiet moment.


Q: Who brings the belongings of the fallen soldier back to the family?

Molino: It will get to the family -- if I have the process correct -- through the casualty assistance officer, and it will be delivered to Dover with the remains, and then it will be through Dover would ensure -- they'd know by that time who the casualty assistance officer is, and then depending on what the best -- the most efficient way to do that is, it would be delivered to them.


Q: I'm sorry if you mentioned this at the beginning. But is there a maximum amount of time that you give before you no longer try to contact a next of kin, or if one can't be found, before you release the name?

Molino: No. We keep driving it till we find the next of kin.

Q: If you can't find one, assuming they're just not around, I mean, do you just -- there's not a time frame where you just say, all right, we can't find anybody? Or --

Molino: No. The service member would have to declare a next of kin on their emergency data form, if for no other reason to be the beneficiary for their servicemen group life insurance, if for no other reason. And that person or persons would be notified to close the loop. So what sometimes happens is that person may move, the address is different, and you go through a tracking process until you find them.


Q: Do you have to have -- do the services have to have a casualty report or something else before -- do they have to wait for that before they notify the family, something in writing? Or could it be by phone call from --

Molino: I guess conceivably it could be by phone. But what happens is that information is transmitted electronically, so it is in the person's hand virtually when they're notified that they are the casualty assistance officer. It might be, you know, "Hello, Sergeant. You're going to notify this family. Come by the office and pick this up. We'll fax it to your duty location," you pick it up and you go with it.

Q: Before you make the notification, you have to have a casualty report?

Molino: Yes. You have to have the information that's associated with the report of casualty. Now, is it in the -- on that form or is it the information that's transmitted on a piece of paper that's faxed, I don't know the answer to that, and I wouldn't want to say in 100 percent of the cases it's the precise form, but it is that information.

Q: Some of the services said they get the information, but they can't -- they have to have it in writing, confirmed, before they notify the family.

Molino: That is because we do not want -- the answer to that is yes, and it's specifically on the individual. There will be pieces of information that are either tentative or unknown, but we do not ever want to make the mistake where we knock on a door and deliver information that -- somebody who is alive and well, and we tell their family that they've been killed. We just don't want to do that. And that's why we ensure that -- remember again where our focus is. Our focus is on the family. And even if it means we slow up a little bit, we'll slow up a little bit, and we'll only be able to give you folks numbers and not a name.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: How much information are the next of kin of the wounded given? When somebody is wounded and you notify next of kin, how much are they told about the circumstances?

Molino: We tell them everything we know, everything we know to be true. And in some cases, if it's believed to be true, we say we know that so-and-so was wounded and we know it was from gunfire, and it was in this circumstance, and this is as we know it; and as that information matures, we bring them the updates. No, we share whatever we know.

Anybody else? Thank you all.

Q: Thank you.

Molino: It may not surprise you to know I hope I never do this again. Thanks.


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