The next-of-kin notification, the military, & the media.

Following the recent crash of 2 F-18s on the USS Carl Vinson, I want to take a moment to discuss how the next-of-kin spouse notification works.

Discussing the topic of training or deployment deaths is an understandably taboo topic among us spouses. However, very few of us understand how the Chain of Command (COC) handles notifications when a service member is injured or dies in service to our country. Though it’s an uncomfortable topic, I think it’s good information to have.

I’m going to use the example of a downed jet that is deployed on an aircraft carrier as I explain this process. Please note that there could be slight differences in the way a particular CAG, SOW (CAG’s spouse), and squadron COW (a squadron’s CO’s spouse) handle the notifications, so I’m going to talk in general terms. Also, if your loved one deploys on, say, a submarine or on land, substitute their leaders’ names for “CAG”, etc. Notifications aren’t an exact science, but this is a general overview.

Let’s say that a jet goes down in the ocean during deployment. Before anything else happens, the aircraft carrier’s communications are turned-off, which includes non-secret email and telephone lines. This is done so that incorrect information isn’t transmitted and to protect the families of those involved.

At some point, CAG (the Carrier Air Wing Commander) will call his/her spouse (if he has one) or his DCAG’s spouse to inform her of what happened and which squadron the downed pilot belongs to. The name of the downed pilot would probably not be released at this point. CAG would not call his spouse until the Navy powers-that-be are ready to release this initial information. This readiness might be tied to the search-and-rescue efforts, a particular timeframe, or some other thing they deem important (all OPSEC related).

While it’s understandable that those of us waiting for information might be infuriated that the name of the pilot involved has not been released, imagine the magnitude of telling a wife that her husband’s plane crashed and he is missing, only to find out an hour later that he was rescued and only suffered minor injuries. Sure, some might want to know anyway, but I think waiting for concrete information is the best policy.

I know a wife whose husband was involved in a very serious accident during a training trip. The COC notified her that he had died, and she was flown across the country to collect his body. Upon arrival, she found-out that he had been revived shortly after the accident and he was in stable condition in a military hospital. She thought he was dead, only to find out that he had actually been alive during all 7 hours of her grieving … but nobody could tell her because she was on a commercial flight. I’m not blaming that command for jumping the gun or acting improperly because I wasn’t there and I only know one side of the story, but imagine if they had waited another hour to share the news of the accident.

About the same time the initial, general information is released to the squadron’s COW, the Navy releases information about the accident to the general public via a press release. I don’t know why the Navy releases this information so soon and it bothers me a bit. Perhaps the Navy is trying to head-off the flow of inaccurate information to media outlets. If they get ahead of the story, they can control it and present factual information. Who knows.

Once the COW is informed that her squadron has a downed jet, it’s up to her to decided how to disseminate the information to her squadron spouses.

After the COW of the affected squadron is notified, the SOW notifies the other air wing COWs that another squadron’s jet went down. Perhaps the SOW will wait some time before notifying the other COWs to ensure that the affected squadron’s spouses are notified before anyone else knows anything. News travels fast, and it’s most important that the affected people learn of the information FIRST.

At some point, the SOW is notified by CAG of the downed pilot’s name. The SOW notifies the squadron COW. Perhaps this notification will include the status of the pilot (rescued, missing, deceased, in treatment, etc). Perhaps a later notification will be made with the final status of the downed pilot.

As soon as the COW learns of the downed pilot’s name, she notifies the pilot’s spouse, based upon the spouse’s notification preferences.

Prior to every deployment, COWs ask their spouses to complete a worksheet that outlines their wishes for how they want to be notified if their spouse is injured or perishes during deployment. The worksheet asks for detailed information so that the COW can provide good support during and following the notification.

My worksheet asks that my SOW notify me in person with a specific friend of mine who lives on base. I requested that I be the only person notified so that I can make the notifications to my in-laws and parents myself. Some people might prefer that a chaplain be present, or that their spouse’s parents be notified, too.  Since every person’s preferences are different, it’s important to fill-out the worksheet honestly and leave little to interpretation.

If a service member is not married, the Navy notifies their next-of-kin (parents, siblings, or children, depending on the situation).

Only after the next-of-kin notification is done is the identity of the downed pilot released to the general public. The military rarely prioritizes families, BUT this is one time that the family is priority. If the Navy issues an official release with a service member’s identity, it’s safe to assume that the family has been notified.

Later this week I’m going to post about the importance of your service member “opting-in” to a special life insurance program. It’s another uncomfortable topic, I know, but it’s important that we are informed and make good decisions about these things.

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