When a soldier is killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, the phone rings soon afterward in a small conference room in an Alexandria office building. It is there that a complex and difficult process begins, one that seeks to break horrible news to American families and to honor the nation's dead heroes.
The Army's Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operation Center is a busy place these days, with the wars claiming hundreds of soldiers' lives and leaving thousands of others with battlefield wounds. Each case is handled by employees housed at the Hoffman Building near the Beltway, where they do everything from organizing the notification of next of kin within hours to coordinating funerals and posthumous awards.
The center -- called CMAOC -- has grown to nearly five times its peacetime size because of the wars, and now houses 300 employees and bustling offices. Because there are no clear signs that the U.S. presence in Iraq is going to dwindle anytime soon, casualty officials are prepared to keep their operation going at this level indefinitely, planning for what has been a stream of casualties.
As of yesterday, about 2,300 U.S. troops have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a majority of the deaths have been in the Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve, according to a Washington Post database. According to the Defense Department, more than 16,200 troops have been wounded.
Everyone with an Army connection who is killed or wounded goes through the casualty center in Alexandria. Casualty assistance officers based in 27 locations around the country are then called upon to personally notify the families of those soldiers who are killed, and they become the family's point of contact for the Army.
"We have the impossible mission of telling them they've given up the greatest sacrifice they can," Lt. Col. Jack O'Brien, chief of the casualty operations division, said. "The country, and the Army, figuratively needs to put its arms around them."
Col. Mary Torgerson, the center's director, said expectations before the Iraq war were for a relatively low number of casualties but included discussions about how to handle the possibility of contaminated remains and scenarios involving weapons of mass destruction. O'Brien said the Desert Storm model -- where there was a very low casualty rate -- did not prepare the staff for so large an operation.
"I don't think we were thinking of the long-range situation we have," Torgerson said during a recent tour of the facility, stopping in the wounded-in-action room, where calls to families are made to inform them when soldiers have been injured. "And we're way above what it would normally be."
The wounded-in-action room is in some ways the most difficult mission the operations center has, because employees there get on the phone with families to discuss what has happened to their loved ones. The discussions can be gut-wrenching, as the callers have patched families through to the injured soldiers on the phone, in what has sometimes been their last opportunity to speak directly.
O'Brien said he has walked into the room to find the employees openly weeping because of emotional calls.
Torgerson said everyone in the operation recognizes the importance of what they are doing. "It is something that takes something out of you, but it also gives something back," she said, adding that the reality of the wars is very apparent within her office's walls. "You're constantly aware of the pain people are going through."
Maj. Bob Amico runs a team that coordinates with more than a dozen government agencies to ensure that the tiniest details are taken care of, with the mission of achieving a "flawless funeral" in each case. This means arranging for the soldier's remains to be returned to the United States, to have official identification and an autopsy performed, transferring the remains to a hometown funeral home, and then making arrangement for official honors and awards so the soldier can be buried with his or her medals.
Amico said his team also arranges for the proper uniforms, paperwork and the soldiers' personal effects to be taken care of, in the hope of making it as easy as possible on grieving families.
In part, the Alexandria operation is a clearinghouse for information. Initial casualty reports are passed from the battlefield to casualty affairs, which then tries to pass on the circumstances of a soldier's death to their families. Sometimes that information is incomplete because of the wartime situation, and sometimes families take their grief and frustration out on casualty assistance officers.
Torgerson said the flow of information from the battlefield could be improved, and that the wars have been instructive in terms of how the casualty notification process could get better.
She said Army leaders are very concerned about getting the most complete information. Her office recently put together a new guide for surviving family members and is working on a series of products -- such as video programs involving families looking back on the process -- to make sure the center is doing the best it can.
"The Army takes this seriously," Amico said, adding that for many families, "We're the Army to them."