by Kirk Leach
The Office of Casualty Assistance (OCA) was established within the Bureau of Human Resources (HR) in 1999 in the aftermath of the 1998 terrorist attacks at the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, in which the Department of State suffered mass casualties. Since then, OCA has provided administrative assistance and support to families and posts following the serious injury or death of direct-hire Department employees serving around the world; the serious injury or death of eligible family members (EFMs) on orders overseas; and the death of civil service employees. OCA also plays an advisory supporting role to posts following the death of a locally employed (LE) staff member or of a non-State U.S. government employee who falls under Chief of Mission authority.
OCA provides families of deceased employees with information and assistance regarding federal employment benefits, preparation and transportation of remains, and access to support resources. OCA is in touch with the deceased employee’s family within hours after the death, and provides support services as long as they are needed—for weeks, months, and in some cases, years.
“We are still in touch with and supporting survivors of the 1998 embassy bombings today, more than 20 years later,” said OCA Director Kirk Leach.
OCA is ably staffed by three dedicated casualty support professionals. Leach and Program Specialist Tonyia Warren both have more than 10 years of experience in OCA, and Deputy Director Shannan O’Bryan recently joined the office permanently after a three-year rotation from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, where she worked in the same field. The staff is supported by approximately 60 volunteers from HR, comprising the crisis support teams (CST). CSTs are trained and stand ready to be activated at a moment’s notice to assist in the event of a mass casualty. The teams were called upon after the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2012 Benghazi attack, among other incidents. The CST volunteers are vital to the Department contingency operations and are a valuable asset.
“When the first call for HR employees to staff the crisis support teams was sent in 1999, I joined many colleagues in volunteering to be on one of the teams that could be activated to help employees and their families during a crisis,” said Cynthia Nelson, a CST volunteer since the program’s inception in 1999. “I have continued to participate because I want to be called upon to serve in the event a tragedy occurs at an overseas post or domestic office.”
In addition to supporting employees and families in dire times, OCA is also involved in many other important initiatives that recognize and honor the Department’s fallen employees. OCA manages the plaques inside the C Street entrance of the Harry S. Truman building that honor LE staff who have been killed in the performance of duty, and EFMs who have died as the result of acts of terrorism, while performing acts of heroism, or other compelling circumstances. The office coordinates the ceremonies placing new names of the fallen on these plaques. OCA also advises bureaus about commemoration ceremonies to remember those who were killed in major terrorist incidents such as the attacks in Lebanon in 1983 and in Africa in 1998.
One special initiative led by OCA was the administration of the payments made to survivors of employees who were victims of terrorism from 1983 to the present. After these payments were authorized by Congress, OCA worked with the Office of the Legal Advisor to develop guidelines, then informed other agencies, and sought out survivors to inform them of their eligibility. Through help from the various posts abroad, internet research, and agencies’ collaboration over the course of several years, OCA identified more than 200 eligible survivors and helped them claim payments.
OCA also provides presentations regarding personal contingency planning in an effort to ensure that all employees are aware of the importance of preparing for the possibility, however remote, of death or incapacitation.
“Our presentations have become a popular source of obtaining information,” said Leach. “We provide details regarding designations of beneficiaries for federal benefits; life insurance; health and disability insurance, and how to prepare and manage one’s personal affairs so that grieving families do not have to face the very difficult task of locating many documents.”
OCA oversees approximately 40 cases annually. Some cases are relatively straightforward while others require special efforts to make sure that families of deceased or injured employees receive the resources they need.
“In all cases, the needs of the family are paramount,” said Leach. “We are available 24/7, if needed, to provide this service.”
OCA recently moved to a new location in HST-2817, near the D Street entrance and welcomes employees who may want to discuss personal contingency planning or other matters within the scope of OCA’s mission. While walk-ins are welcome, appointments are preferred and can be arranged by sending an email to OCA@state.gov.
Kirk Leach is the director of the Office of Casualty Assistance.