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Casualty services keep families first

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFPN) -- The war on terrorism has not changed the priorities of Air Force casualty services people at the Air Force Personnel Center here; families of hurt or killed airmen come first.

Operation Enduring Freedom has only made the always-open casualty office staff's work more important to the promise that the Air Force cares for its own.

"No one likes to receive bad news, and our role is to ensure that it's delivered the right way...in person whenever possible," said Maj. Jerry Couvillion, chief of casualty services. "The first obligation is to family members, everyone else is secondary."

Anytime an Air Force member becomes seriously ill or injured, dies or is missing, highly trained professionals ensure timely, dignified, empathetic and compassionate notification to that airman's family, he said.

"We're taking care of the families," said Staff Sgt. Julye McCombie, a casualty services technician.

Timely notification is especially important with today's instant 24-hour news reporting. The casualty center staff wants to minimize the possibility of families hearing tragic news while watching television or from a reporter's call, said Couvillion.

At the first indication of a possible mishap, members of casualty services begin researching affected airmen's emergency information to find out where the "primary" relatives, usually a spouse or parents, live.

Finding family members is not always simple, said McCombie. Inaccurate information on the "emergency data card" -- a form that every airman must have on file -- turns casualty services experts into detectives. Agencies like the Office of Special Investigations, Internal Revenue Service and FBI have been called to help locate family members, said Couvillion.

After the casualty is confirmed, the nearest trained notification officer is sent to inform the primary family member. If this relative lives near the victim's permanent duty station, the member's commander is responsible for making the notification, said the major.

Often primary family members live hundreds of miles from a notification team or are away from home when tragedy strikes.

"We'll do anything to find the family," Couvillion said. "We can't and we won't stop until we find them. There is no opportunity for second chances."

Letters and telegrams, sometimes even delivered by taxi drivers, were primarily used to deliver tragic news to families in past wars. Today the process is much more personal. Usually a field grade notifying officer informs family members of a loved one's fate. A chaplain and medical professional normally accompany the officer.

"[Most people] know what it means when a group of uniformed military officers shows up at their doorstep," said Couvillion. "It's very seldom good news."

Casualty assistance representatives at every Air Force installation train and maintain a contingent of notification officers, he said.

"Casualty assistance representatives are some of the most compassionate and caring people you could ever meet," said Couvillion. "They have to be since they deal with families who are going through a lot."

Follow-on assistance is also provided to families by casualty services professionals for things like life insurance settlements, death gratuity, veteran's benefits and education benefits. And the Air Force will continue to help these families for as long as assistance is wanted, said Couvillion.

"It's a great job because we are helping people every day," he said. (Courtesy of AFPC News Service)

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