The death of a service member may be one of the most trying situations military families experience. But the Wisconsin Army National Guard has trained professionals to help families navigate the difficult next steps.
“The Wisconsin Army National Guard provides casualty assistance officers for all of our fallen Soldiers,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Steve Wightman, Wisconsin Army National Guard plans and operations chief.
In early May, the Wisconsin Army National Guard had 89 trained casualty assistance officers and casualty notification officers. These individuals are all volunteers who have other military duties, but once assigned their primary — and only — mission is casualty assistance, for as long as needed. The minimum rank to be a casualty assistance officer is sergeant first class, chief warrant officer 2 or captain.
During a recent training course, Joe Meier — a survivor outreach coordinator based in Rhinelander, Wisconsin — informed Soldiers in the class that casualty assistance officers become the scaffolding that support and protect the families of deceased service members. Brian Jopek, a retired Wisconsin Army National Guard veteran who has been the beneficiary of casualty assistance officer services, put it more bluntly when speaking to the course attendees.
“You need to be there when the **** hits the fan,” Jopek said. “That’s essentially what happens.”
Jopek’s son, Sgt. Ryan Jopek, was killed by a roadside bomb near Tikrit, Iraq in August 2006 while deployed with the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment.
Families are often in shock after being notified of their service member’s death, and it is not unusual for them to need assistance in dealing with the media, deciding military involvement in the funeral, potentially arranging transportation to Dover Air Force Base for the dignified transfer of remains if the death occurred in a theater of operations, and coordinating visits and calls from politicians and senior military officials.
The Wisconsin Army National Guard hasn’t had a combat casualty since 2009, but Wightman said there have been seven reportable casualties — that is, when the service member was on paid status on active duty, working on orders in a full-time status, performing drill or during annual training — since then. In these situations, the Casualty Assistance Center at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri provides guidance to the casualty assistance officers.
The Wisconsin National Guard also assigns casualty assistance officers to the families of Soldiers who die in a non-paid or off-duty status. Wightman provides guidance for these missions, which typically take less time than on-duty casualties.
In both situations, the casualty assistance officer work with surviving families in three phases — an initial meeting to set up funeral honors; assist with unresolved service member financial considerations such as benefits, pay, bonuses, clearing up outstanding military requirements, and returning the Soldier’s personal effects to the family; and eventually being the bridge to Survivor Outreach Services, a contractor service that assists the family as long as they are needed.
Maj. Michelle Geldernick served as the casualty assistance officer for a Wisconsin National Guard Soldier who died in December 2020.
“The most challenging thing about this role is working through the details with a family who is grieving” — particularly if the loss is unexpected, she explained. “A CAO has the opportunity to get to know a family very intimately in what is, for most, one of the worst times of their lives. Trying to be the rock the family needs so that they can properly lay their loved one to rest is difficult. The emotional toll it takes to do this duty is significant, and should never be discounted.”
However, Geldernick said helping a family see that their Soldier was given the proper recognition is a positive aspect to the role.
“Knowing how I was part of ensuring a fellow Soldier was laid to rest properly and with the most care I could provide the family was the most rewarding piece for me,” she said. “I still have contact with the family, and know it will be a lifelong connection.”
Trainees learned that, in addition to the sudden loss of the service members, surviving family members may be dealing with other dynamics, such as separation or divorce, that can complicate the casualty assistance officer’s tasks.
“It’s a tough job, but I think it can be a rewarding one as well,” Jopek said, applauding the casualty assistance officer assigned when his son — Sgt. Ryan Jopek — was killed Aug. 1, 2006 while on mission near Tikrit in Iraq. “It is a very serious job, and it isn’t one I would want. But I know you guys will take it seriously.”
“It is one of the most intimidating, emotionally draining and exhausting duties I have ever had to do,” she said, “but it is an experience which I would not give back. I joined the Army to be part of something bigger than myself. Serving as a casualty assistance officer to a family and being able to help them in their time of need has assisted greatly in fulfilling that for me.”