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Becoming a casualty assistance officer ‘a calling,’ chief says

Scott Hansen/JBLM PAO Patricia George, chief of casualty assistance at JBLM, calls her staff "the most compassionate people you'll ever meet."

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On Easter Sunday while children participated in backyard egg hunts and neighbors greeted each other at church, a team from JBLM's Casualty Assistance Office arrived at Gray Army Airfield for another sort of family gathering - to support a grieving father, mother and wife as they welcomed home their fallen Soldier.

It's not the sort of homecoming military families ever want to think about, but for Patricia George and her staff of 12 who assist families touched by the worst part of war, it's a job that they do 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I think it's a calling," George said. "Our staff is made up of the most compassionate people you'll ever meet."

George has worked as the chief of JBLM's Casualty Assistance Office since 2000, when there were just two employees serving the casualty needs of families in five states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, northern California and Montana.

With the onset of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, their service area remained the same, but their staff grew to accommodate active duty service member deaths, which averaged three to five per week during the most intense fighting overseas.

A decrease this year in the number of active duty casualties has been a welcome change, George said, but her staff never forgets they are there to support military families.

"All of (the employees) have a part in (each) casualty," she said. "They are personally connected to each death."

Casualty assistance officers are responsible for family notification upon a service member's death and coordinating family member travel to funeral and memorial services. The JBLM Casualty Assistance Office increased efforts in recent years to bring as many family members as possible to these important events, George said, including adult children and in-laws. They also provide an encased folded American flag to every child of a fallen active duty service member and handle funeral honors for veterans and retirees.

Since the start of the conflicts, George said the casualty process has evolved and incorporated changes. The most notable is the increased death gratuity, which grew from $4,000 to $100,000. The maximum amount of the Service member's Group Life Insurance benefit was raised to $400,000. Care teams are available to assist families with needs like baby-sitting, running errands and answering phones.

The notification process is carried out by two-person teams consisting of an active duty service member (E-7, O-3 or CW2 and above) and a chaplain who stay with the family members until relatives or friends arrive.

George said casualty notification is an additional duty assigned to military personnel, requiring them to complete a two-hour Department of the Army mandated Casualty Assistance and Notification Course.

"It's a difficult duty," she said. "But the Army is a system that has thought of everything in terms of taking care of families through the casualty process."

For an office that faces death on a daily basis, George said her staff wasn't prepared when they lost one of their own in September 2012. An employee who led the training courses unexpectedly died after surgery.

"We thought he'd come back," she said. "Even though we deal with it every day, it was very personal for us. We're our own family here. We still mourn for him. He was a great friend and employee."

Their loss makes them even more aware of what families face when a military casualty occurs, and George said that's why the casualty assistance office operates under a "zero tolerance for error" policy.

"We take care of families, and we understand the importance of being there," she said. "We have one chance to make this right."

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