A visitor no family wants
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — A knock at the door … two soldiers in Class A uniforms standing outside. It’s something every family of a deployed soldier dreads.
For personnel assigned to notify the family of a soldier killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan, it is an assignment that comes along, usually, only once in a career.
To make sure it is done right, the Army requires that soldiers tasked with casualty notification receive a minimum of two days of training at a local Casualty Assistance Office. The Grafenwöhr office goes beyond that, organizing extra training sessions with role-players taking the part of the bereaved family member.
Mario Mena, an assistant casualty manager at Grafenwöhr, trains casualty notification officers and casualty assistance officers — soldiers who assist families in the weeks and months following a soldier’s death. The 43-year-old retired first sergeant with 26 years of active-duty service saw his share of casualties when he deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the 2nd Dagger Brigade — now the 172nd Infantry Brigade based at Grafenwöhr.
These days, he supervises the casualty notification and assistance training from an office filled with photographs of fallen soldiers who were stationed at the garrison and news clippings of stories about them. The office also makes sure commanders inform families of any wounded or injured soldiers in a timely manner and provides retirement services, he said.
At Grafenwöhr, training for casualty notification and to become a casualty assistance officer goes beyond the two days of classroom study mandated by the Army to include role-playing sessions with volunteers acting as bereaved family members, Mena said.
It is a far cry from the Vietnam War-era system that saw taxi drivers deliver telegrams to families informing them that a soldier had been killed in action.
Unfortunately, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that the Army has had many opportunities to improve the process in recent years, Mena said.
"Most people will only have to do it once in their career. And we expect them to be very good at it," he said.
To be a casualty notification officer, a soldier must rank at least sergeant first class, if enlisted, or captain and have at least six years of active-duty service, he said.
Mena took part in a casualty notification at Fort Polk, La., when he was a soldier in 1996. It was his job to tell a woman and her three children that her husband had died in a car accident on his way to work.
"At first they were confused about who I was. … There was a chaplain with me," Mena said. "I identified myself and made sure I was talking to the right person. There was disbelief and confusion. It could be shock or denial at what was going on. There were a couple of questions and then it starts to settle in."
The family was emotional, and Mena and the chaplain stayed with them until a friend arrived, he said.
The process lasted about 30 minutes.
"The casualty notification team is not intended to be there for a long time," he said.
"They make sure the situation is stable before they leave, and they tell them that a casualty assistance officer will be contacting them.
"The casualty assistance mission is a lot longer ... but I would rather do casualty assistance many times before I had to do another notification."
Mena called the assignment an honor, but he realizes it’s "probably the worst news this person will hear in their life."
Michelle Gamboa, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Joseph D. Gamboa, 34, of Guam, was killed by an enemy mortar strike in Baghdad on March 26, said she never thought about it before it happened.
"The doorbell rang and the chaplain and a soldier were both standing at my front door," she said. "I already knew what it was about. I watch it on TV all the time. The kids had just left for school, but I had my two younger ones at home."
She told the soldiers to leave but they stayed with her until a friend came, she said.
“At that point I wasn’t thinking, but support from friends is very important,” she said. “I don’t think I would have made it through that first day if they were not there.”
In the Gamboa case, Sgt. 1st Class Toby Gibson, 37, of Saluda, S.C., was assigned as the casualty assistance officer.
Gibson serves with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 18th Combat Service Support Battalion at Grafenwöhr. Each unit in the garrison takes turns providing casualty assistance officers, and on March 26 it was Gibson’s turn.
“Since it was my first time it was scary,” he said. “I had an idea what to expect with the training, but when you get called it is a totally different thing.”
After getting a call on his cell phone that morning, he reported to the Casualty Notification Office where staff briefed him on the case. Four hours after the notification, he called Gamboa to make an appointment. She wanted to see him that day, he said.
When he arrived at the house, she was surrounded by other spouses from the regiment and people from the Guam community, he said.
Gibson, who is married and has two school-age children, briefed her on the $100,000 death gratuity that she would receive within a few days.
He continued to meet with Gamboa several times a week, helping arrange her husband’s funeral back on Guam and then helping her claim other entitlements until she left Germany at the end of July, he said.
He got to know the family well during that time, he said.
“I would say the kids are coping real well. I don’t think they fully understood the whole thing initially,” he said.
When the family left Germany, Gibson took them to the airport.
“It was emotional. You get attached. I was seeing her every day. She got comfortable with me and I got comfortable with her talking,” he said.
Gibson said he also got to know a lot about Staff Sgt. Joseph Gamboa.
“He was always a happy guy,” Gibson said. “Very athletic. Whatever sport — he played it, whether he was good at it or not. He loved golf. He was really family-oriented.”
The experience as a casualty assistance officer made Gibson think about his own mortality, he said.
“It put a whole lot of things in perspective. I talked to my wife, and we sat down and had a long discussion about what my requests are, as far as where I would like to be buried. I told her a military graveyard close to South Carolina,” he said.
Casualty notification officers are encouraged to talk to a spouse, chaplain or the Casualty Assistance Office if they feel stressed or emotionally drained after a notification, Mena said.
“You want to be strong for the person you are making the notification for,” he said. “You don’t think it is going to have that effect on you, but somehow you empathize with the person and feel the emotional weight of the situation.”