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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Consistent with the GAO recommendation, on March 6, 2017, DOD instituted a new charter for the program. The charter establishes responsibilities for the Military Department Gold Star and Surviving Family Member Representatives and identifies policies to govern the program, responsibilities, and procedures. In addition, DOD has updated the name of the program to The Gold Star and Surviving Family Member Representative Program, in order to make clear that the program is available for all 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 develop interim policies to govern the program, to include identification of roles, responsibilities, and procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation. Consistent with the GAO recommendation, as of July 2018, DOD has determined outreach goals and metrics. DOD's goal is to provide information to all family members that the Gold Star Advocate exists and is there to assist them. Officials measure success toward this goal by including a question on the DOD Survivor Survey asking family members if they had a complaint concerning casualty assistance or receipt of benefits they could contact the service's Gold Star and Surviving Family Member Representative.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Consistent with the GAO recommendation, on November 9, 2016, the Coast Guard issued a memorandum to establish the Coast Guard Gold Star Program and Gold Star Advocate. Along with defining the roles for the Gold Star Program, the memorandum includes a list of responsibilities and procedures to ensure that families of fallen Coast Guard members will have continued support.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Consistent with the GAO recommendation, Coast Guard officials stated that as of October 2017, they have created seven goals and have measured progress toward the goals. Officials stated they will continue to develop outreach methods and programs, with a goal of having 100 percent of surviving family members being provided information on 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 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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation. Consistent with the GAO recommendation, as of July 2018, DOD has two indicators officials use to determine how the training contributes to quality.

    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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