Casualty Assistance: An Overview

Through the Casualty Assistance Program, the Department of Defense ensures that military families have support in their time of need and that they understand all of the benefits and other forms of assistance available to them.

What is a casualty?

Although the term "casualty" is commonly associated with death, it is actually an inclusive category defined as any person lost to an organization by reason of having been declared

  • Beleaguered - member of an organized element that has been surrounded by a hostile force to prevent escape of its members
  • Besieged - member of an organized element that has been surrounded by a hostile force to compel it to surrender
  • Captured - seized as the result of action of an unfriendly military or paramilitary force in a foreign country
  • Deceased
  • Detained - prevented from proceeding or restrained in custody for alleged violation of international law or other reason claimed by the government or group by which the person is being held
  • DUSTWUN, or duty status - whereabouts unknown - transitory casualty status, applicable only to military personnel, used when the responsible commander suspects the service member may be a casualty whose absence is involuntary, but does not feel sufficient evidence currently exists to make a definite determination of missing or deceased
  • EAWUN, or excused absence - whereabouts unknown - for civilians
  • Injured or ill
  • Interned - known to have been taken into custody of a nonbelligerent foreign power as the result of, and for reasons arising from, any armed conflict in which the military services of the United States are engaged
  • Missing - not present at his or her duty location due to apparently involuntary reasons and whose location is unknown
  • Missing in action - a hostile casualty, other than the victim of a terrorist activity, who is not present at his or her duty location due to apparent involuntary reasons and whose location is unknown
  • Wounded in action

The Casualty Assistance Program

The Casualty Assistance Program provides compassionate assistance for families of ill, injured, or deceased service members in a broad range of areas, including

  • Transportation
  • Explaining and assisting in applying for and receiving benefits and entitlements
  • Obtaining copies of records, reports and investigations;
  • Legal matters (including tax issues)
  • Receipt of personal effects
  • Burial expenses
  • Injury, mortuary, and funeral honors assistance
  • Relocation assistance (including shipment of household goods)
  • Liaison with other federal agencies
  • Information and referral, including coordinating with outside agencies such as benevolent and philanthropic agencies
  • Emotional and spiritual support.

For injured service members, each Service branch operates its own programs to assist severely injured service members and their families: the United States Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2)Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment, Navy Safe Harbor Program, and the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. These programs tailor their support to meet the specific needs of individual service members.

Who is eligible to receive casualty assistance?

Casualty assistance is available to the person most closely related to the deceased service member, the primary next of kin. The person most closely related to the casualty is considered the PNOK for notification and assistance purposes, typically the spouse or, for unmarried service members, the parents. The precedence of next of kin with equal relationships to the casualty is governed by seniority (age). Equal relationship situations include divorced parents, children, and siblings with minor children's rights exercised by their parents or legal guardians. The adult NOK is typically the first person highest in the line of succession who has reached the age of 18. Even when a service member's spouse is a minor, he or she is always considered the PNOK. The following order of precedence is used to identify the PNOK:

  • Spouse
  • Natural, adopted, step, and illegitimate children
  • Parents
  • Persons standing in loco parentis
  • Persons granted legal custody of the individual by a court decree
  • Brothers or sisters, to include adopted or half-brothers or -sisters
  • Grandparents
  • Other relatives in order of relationship to the individual according to civil laws

If no other persons are available, the Secretary of the Military Service may be deemed to act on behalf of the individual.

Casualty assistance (call) officer

In the event of a service member's death, a notification team of at least two uniformed individuals contacts the surviving family members identified on the service member’s Record of Emergency Data. Each service is responsible for notifying the next of kin, and each branch has specific procedures for ensuring expeditious and personal notification. All branches of the military services use a single standard system, the Defense Casualty Information Processing System. DCIPS supports uniform procedures, accounting and accurate reporting of casualties to ensure support of family members, benefits tracking, coordination of mortuary affairs and return of personal effects/human remains.

A casualty assistance officer, in the Army; casualty assistance call officer, in the Navy and Marine Corps; or casualty assistance representative, in the Air Force, is assigned to help the family with important matters. The designated CAO notifies the family of the casualty and serves as a liaison between the family and the service branch. When performing CAO duties, a service member is relieved of all other conflicting responsibilities.

Usually, the CAO will be of equal grade or higher than the casualty for whom the duties are performed. The CAO maintains continuous contact with the PNOK to ensure that he or she is kept updated on all relevant matters until all entitlements and benefits are received. They remain available to families afterward to address additional questions and concerns that may arise. They understand the military environment, the emotional and financial strain on family members during this stressful time, and the various forms of support available to help them cope during their time of grief.


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