By Elijah Morlett
Pairs of soldiers from the Oklahoma Army National Guard have approached several homes this year bearing news that no family would want to hear.
These soldiers in dress uniform, an officer and a chaplain, have traveled across the state to inform parents and spouses that their loved one was killed in combat in Afghanistan.
This summer, members of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team deployed to Afghanistan in support of ongoing combat operations. Fourteen Oklahoma soldiers have fallen in combat so far from this deployment.
Captain Franklin Alexander of the 45th Fires Brigade, headquartered in Mustang, OK, is assigned to a casualty notification team of the Oklahoma National Guard. After performing two casualty notifications, he said that the task is never easy, though it feels as if it belongs as a soldier’s duty.
“It’s probably the most honorable job you can have in the military,” Alexander said. “It’s also one of the hardest jobs and something you don’t want to have to do.
Once a soldier is killed in combat, notification centers call assigned personnel to let them know to be ready to give a notification. According to Alexander, it takes about eight hours to receive the official information to notify the families.
“The National Guard does a phenomenal job notifying and taking care of the families,” Alexander said. “You wish there was less time between the phone call and the actual notification, but there is a lot that goes on in theater before we get that information.”
Alexander described the moments before the notification as truly difficult. Being able to control your own emotions are crucial to the process, as the notification process follows a specific script and procedure.
“The worst part of the process is knocking on the door,” he said. “At that point, there is no turning back. When the family sees two uniformed service members, they know what they are there for.”
From that life-changing moment, the responsibility transfers from the casualty notification officers to the casualty assistant officer.
Sergeant First Class Steven Sullivan, a CAO that is currently aiding a soldier’s family from this deployment, said that his responsibility is to report to the family within four hours from the notification.
“I introduce myself to them and let them know I’m there to take care of any of their needs,” Sullivan said. “I help them with paperwork, getting the soldier’s finances and life insurance in order, funeral arrangements and the dignified transfer of the body.”
The dignified transfer is the ceremonial movement of the remains of U.S. Armed Forces personnel from overseas, held at Dover Air Force Base, Del. CAO’s travel with the families to Dover to escort them and the soldier’s remains back home.
“You’re right by the spouse the entire time,” Sullivan said. “We were on the plane to Delaware within 12 hours to watch the dignified transfer.”
Up until the funeral, the officer is with the family on a daily basis. Afterward, the time with the family becomes less frequent. The CAO is assigned to the family for up to six months.
“It’s not easy, but you have to be the one person the family can turn to that’s not breaking down,” Sullivan said. “You have to be their rock. You can’t break down during this time.”
The military provides counseling for the families as they go through a massive transition in their lives. Though it is an emotional time for the family and the assisting soldier, Sullivan said he would not want a different assignment.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to do this,” Sullivan said. “The military sees to it that the family is taken care of.”