Casualty Assistance:

DOD and the Coast Guard Need to Develop Policies and Outreach Goals and Metrics for Program Supporting Servicemembers' Survivors

GAO-16-569: Published: Jun 28, 2016. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 2016.

Additional Materials:

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Brenda S. Farrell
(202) 512-3604
farrellb@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Coast Guard took steps to implement the Gold Star Advocate Program in 2014 by designating Gold Star Advocates who have received, addressed, and reported a variety of issues raised by survivors, and they conducted some outreach to survivors for the program, but they have not established policies to manage the program. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 required the designation of personnel to provide support to survivors of servicemembers who died while on active duty. Known as Gold Star Advocates, these personnel are available at any point in the casualty assistance process. If a survivor is not satisfied with the casualty assistance he or she has received, the survivor may contact a Gold Star Advocate. According to DOD officials, few issues have risen to the level of the program's attention because survivor issues are generally resolved by casualty assistance officers—who serve as liaison between the survivor and the service branch following the death of a servicemember, and assist with funeral arrangements and the application and receipt of benefits and entitlements—and long-term assistance programs, which are available to provide support throughout a survivor's lifetime.

Overview of the Casualty Assistance Process

Overview of the Casualty Assistance Process

However, while steps have been taken to implement the program, neither DOD nor the Coast Guard has established policies for the program, including roles, responsibilities, and procedures. Additionally, although DOD and the Coast Guard have conducted some outreach for the program, they have not developed goals and metrics for outreach, without which some survivors may remain unaware of the casualty assistance available to them. While the program is available to serve survivors of all servicemembers who died while on active duty, its outreach methods are primarily directed toward survivors of servicemembers who have died since the program was implemented in 2014.

DOD and its military services have developed a casualty assistance officer training program that addresses the duties required of casualty assistance officers that is consistent with some attributes of an effective training program, but DOD and its military services may not have the indicators needed to evaluate the effect of that training on casualty assistance program performance. For example, DOD administers a web-based survey to survivors regarding the quality of casualty assistance they received, but the survey has roughly a 10 percent response rate. With such a low response rate, DOD acknowledged that results should be interpreted cautiously. Without improved indicators for evaluating the effect of casualty assistance officer training, DOD may not have the information needed to improve the quality of casualty assistance provided to survivors.

Why GAO Did This Study

From January 2002 through November 2015, 17,911 servicemembers died while on active duty, leaving approximately 24,000 surviving dependents. The military services' casualty assistance programs guide these survivors through the casualty assistance process following the death of a servicemember.

Senate Report 114-49 included a provision that GAO review the Gold Star Advocate Program and the training provided for casualty assistance officers. This report assesses the extent to which (1) DOD and the Coast Guard have implemented the Gold Star Advocate Program and conducted outreach to survivors; and (2) DOD has developed a training program for casualty assistance officers consistent with attributes of an effective training program.

GAO analyzed statutes, DOD and Coast Guard policies on casualty matters, and DOD's military services' casualty assistance guidance and training materials. GAO interviewed officials involved in the Gold Star Advocate Program at DOD, its military services, and the Coast Guard—which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOD and the Coast Guard develop interim policies for the Gold Star Advocate Program and determine goals and metrics for its outreach; and that DOD develop additional indicators for better evaluating its training. DOD and DHS on behalf of the Coast Guard concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell, (202) 512-3604, farrellb@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) is planning to incorporate policies regarding the Gold Star Advocate Program into the revision of DOD Instruction 1300,18, Department of Defense (DOD) Personnel Casualty Matters, Policies, and Procedures. The revision is anticipated to be published in 2017. In the interim, DOD is planning to establish a charter for the Gold Star Advocate Program.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Gold Star Advocate Program achieves its mission and objectives and to enhance outreach for the program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the service secretaries, to develop interim policies to govern the program, to include identification of roles, responsibilities, and procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) is planning to determine outreach goals and metrics by the end of 2016. DOD is also planning to include a question concerning the Gold Star Advocate Program in its telephonic survey of survivors of deceased servicemembers to ensure awareness of the Gold Star Advocate Program amongst survivors.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Gold Star Advocate Program achieves its mission and objectives and to enhance outreach for the program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the service secretaries, to determine outreach goals and metrics by which to measure progress in attaining those goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Coast Guard Personnel Service Center is planning to publish a policy memorandum on the Personnel Service Center Casualty Matters website announcing the establishment of the Gold Star Advocate Program and outlining the policies, procedures, and responsibilities of the Gold Star Advocate Program.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Gold Star Advocate Program achieves its mission and objectives and to enhance outreach for the program, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should develop interim policies to govern the program, to include identification of roles, responsibilities, and procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Coast Guard is planning to establish goals and metrics for the Coast Guard's Gold Star Advocate Program to include: identifying resources to support the program, creating a Gold Star Advocate Program website, updating the Coast Guard's "A Survivor's Guide to Benefits" and link it to the Gold Star Advocate Program website. The Coast Guard also plans to begin capturing addresses and other contact information for survivors of each active duty servicemember death and perform a one-time mass mailing to survivors to inform them of the program. They also plan to develop measures for outreach effectiveness and to partner with the Department of Defense to identify other ways to ensure that all survivors are contacted.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Gold Star Advocate Program achieves its mission and objectives and to enhance outreach for the program, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should determine outreach goals and metrics by which to measure progress in attaining those goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) is planning to develop two surveys to gauge how effective casualty assistance officers found the simulation training program that was developed by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness (OUSD(P&R)).

    Recommendation: To improve the efficacy of the training provided, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to develop indicators to help determine how casualty assistance officer training contributes to the quality of the casualty assistance program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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