Taking Care of the Families of Fallen Servicemembers

Tomb of the Unknown SoldierEach Memorial Day, the United States remembers military servicemembers who lost their lives in service to the nation. It is also important to remember the families whom fallen servicemembers have left behind, and their tremendous sacrifice for the nation. Today’s WatchBlog discusses DOD’s programs for surviving families and how those programs could get even better.

Services for Surviving Families

When a servicemember falls in the line of duty, families receive “casualty assistance” that includes in-person notification, help with applying for benefits and entitlements, and help with other tasks such as making funeral arrangements and obtaining copies of completed investigation reports on the servicemember’s death.

In addition, each military service provides long-term support throughout survivors’ lifetimes:

  • Army. The Army’s Survivor Outreach Services has specially trained support coordinators and financial counselors to provide long-term support to survivors of deceased soldiers.
  • Navy. The Navy Gold Star Program facilitates counseling and other support services, including organizing events for survivors of deceased sailors. Additionally, the Navy Long Term Assistance Program is available to address questions or issues related to survivor benefits.
  • Air Force.The Air Force Families Forever program provides family care experts at Airman and Family Readiness Centers, as well as resources, support, and information for Air Force survivors.
  • Marine Corps. The Marine Corps Long-Term Assistance Program provides outreach and assistance to Marine Corps survivors on issues associated with benefits and entitlements. The Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs, Casualty Section manages this program.
  • Coast Guard. According to officials, while the Coast Guard does not have a separate long-term assistance program, casualty assistance personnel are available to address survivors’ issues and concerns for as long as needed.

Gold Star Advocates

In addition, in 2014, Congress required the military services to designate specific employees (military or civilian) to help survivors with any issues they may encounter with casualty assistance and receipt of benefits. Known as Gold Star Advocates, these employees help all surviving families, not just families who lost a servicemember in certain conflicts or military operations.

According to DOD officials, few issues have risen to the level of the Gold Star Advocate Program’s attention because survivor issues are generally resolved by casualty assistance officers who help families navigate their benefits and entitlements. However, we found that some survivors may not be aware of the program, and recommended that the program develop outreach goals and metrics to measure progress in getting the word out. DOD concurred with all of our findings.

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Help for International Air Travelers?

Homeland SecurityMemorial Day weekend marks the start of the peak summer travel season, when the highest volumes of international travelers arrive at U.S. international airports, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

CBP and airport and airline stakeholders have taken a variety of steps in recent years to help reduce wait times and move travelers efficiently through U.S. international airports.

So, as we near the busy summer travel season, how can these travel initiatives help speed people through international arrivals? Today’s WatchBlog explores.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspections

Flying internationally to the United States means undergoing inspection by CBP. Travelers arriving at U.S. international airports from a foreign airport must pass through the Federal Inspection Service area where CBP conducts immigration and customs inspections.

In there, travelers queue for inspection—some of which can be automated, if the technology is available and if the traveler is eligible. After that, travelers collect their checked baggage and pass through an exit control checkpoint. A CBP officer can refer a traveler to a more thorough secondary inspection at any point in the inspections process.

It’s this process that CBP and airport and airline stakeholders are working to streamline through various initiatives.

Table 1: Airport Travel and Tourism Facilitation Initiatives at the 31 Terminals in the 17 Busiest U.S. International Airports as of the End of Fiscal Year 2016(Excerpted from GAO-17-470)

What are the initiatives?

CBP and airport and airline stakeholders have launched a variety of travel and tourism initiatives to streamline the CBP inspections process, reduce wait times, and help travelers navigate the international arrivals process, including

  • Automated technologies, such as Global Entry and Automated Passport Control self-service kiosks, that help travelers complete some of the CBP inspection process before seeing a CBP officer.

Figure 37: Automated Passport Control (APC) Kiosks at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) Terminal 1(Excerpted from GAO-17-470)

  • Designated lanes for some types of travelers, such as diplomats and travelers without checked bags, to help speed these travelers through inspections.
  • Infrastructure modifications that can streamline CBP inspections and exit processes for travelers. For example, an initiative called “baggage first” allows travelers to collect their checked baggage before being inspected by a CBP officer. And “modified egress” streamlines the exit control checkpoint by allowing travelers to collect their baggage and leave the inspection area unless stopped by a CBP officer monitoring the area.

Figure 45: Before and After Implementation of Modified Egress at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport (FLL)(Excerpted from GAO-17-470) 

  • Better signs, including color-coded and electronic signs that help direct travelers and provide other useful information, such as what to expect in the inspections process.

Figure 6: Color-coded Signage at Miami International Airport (MIA) North Terminal and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)(Excerpted from GAO-17-470)

  • Professionalism and stakeholder initiatives that promote awareness of CBP’s mission, address traveler and stakeholder complaints, and help set goals for the airports.

Who develops and pays for these initiatives?

CBP and airport and airline stakeholders jointly implement travel and tourism facilitation initiatives at U.S. international airports.

In general, CBP develops the standards for these initiatives and determines which travelers can use them. Airport and airline stakeholders choose which initiatives to implement and pay for most of the initiatives and associated infrastructure and maintenance costs.

Do all U.S. international airports implement the same initiatives?

In short, no. We found that every international airport is different and the traveler experience varies somewhat at each airport. The differences are the result of the size and layout of the CBP inspections area, the infrastructure needed to support initiatives, the willingness and ability of airport and airline stakeholders to pay for initiatives, stakeholder decisions about how to best implement initiatives, and CBP staffing level.

To learn more, check out our full report.

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Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

Watchdog ReportWe’ve been busy podcasting! If you’re not subscribed on iTunes or our RSS feed, you may be missing out. Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on some of our recent podcasts. Continue reading

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Shedding Light on Tennessee Valley Authority Debt

energyOn this date in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law that brought the Tennessee Valley Authority into existence. It is now the country’s largest public power provider, delivering electricity to more than 9 million people.

The electric utility industry requires huge upfront investments to ensure that utilities can meet future energy needs. The 84-year-old TVA, however, is already billions of dollars in debt—and needs to fund its pensions on top of that. Today’s WatchBlog explores TVA’s debts and what it needs to do to prepare for the energy demands of the future. Continue reading

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Separate and Unequal?

Today, the nation marks the 63rd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case declaring that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional. On last year’s anniversary, we released a report examining race and poverty in schools. We found that some K-12 public schools appeared to still be segregated by race, and also by class. We looked at how these schools measured up to others, and found some disparities. Continue reading

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Who Let the Watchdogs Out? We’re on Location Discussing the Internet of Things (video podcast)

GAO's Watchdog Report Big Bite!Have you ever used a fitness tracker to measure your daily steps? Or adjusted your home thermostat from your phone? If you answered yes, then you’ve experienced the Internet of Things.

If you haven’t heard the term before, the Internet of Things basically refers to how devices, appliances, and vehicles are increasingly designed to capture data and personal information, send it to the internet, and improve efficiency or assist with decision making. Is this a good thing? Are there risks?

In our latest Watchdog Report Big Bite Editionour first video podcast—we’re on location around Washington D.C. discussing our new report on the societal benefits—and potential risks—of the Internet of Things:

Continue reading

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Technology in Transit

Do you use public transportation? If so, you may have noticed that your trips are more high-tech than they used to be. That’s because transit agencies are using Intelligent Transportation Systems—like computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location—to help make your neighborhood buses, trains, and metros more efficient.

For National Transportation Week, today’s WatchBlog looks at the challenges and benefits associated with this technology.

Figure 1: Use of Selected Transit ITS Technologies Continue reading

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Podcast Roundup – Recent Podcasts You May Have Missed

Watchdog ReportIt’s been a busy spring for podcasting! If you’re not subscribed on iTunes or our RSS feed, you may be missing out. Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on some of our recent podcasts. Continue reading

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Building a Better Federal Workforce

Public Service Recognition Week logoThis week marks Public Service Recognition Week. During this annual event, we usually feature some of our work on the federal workforce—and this year is no exception. Continue reading

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The DATA Act Reporting Deadline Is Here—Will Agencies Show You the Money?

Ever wonder how federal agencies spend the trillions of dollars they’re allotted each year? Well Congress did too, and it passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act), which required agencies to submit standardized, accurate financial information so that legislators, government officials, and the taxpaying public can follow the money more closely. Continue reading

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