It's news no family wants to get — that a loved one who was serving in the military has died. But with more than 30,000 Marines deployed around the world and 183,000 on active duty, casualties are inevitable. The Marines who deliver that news are called Casualty Assistance Calls Officers.
It's a duty that comes with a host of emotions, though the role requires the utmost emotional control. Gunnery Sgt. Roger Ruiz, who is based at a U.S. Marine Corps Reserve regiment in Kansas City, Missouri, considers it an honor.
"You know, the Marines, we have a lot of mottos," he says. "One of them is, you know, you never leave a Marine behind."
Ruiz says volunteering for casualty assistance is a way to ensure the fallen Marine is taken care of all the way to his or her final resting place.
Like a lot of things in the military, the death of a Marine triggers a regimented protocol. In this case it's intended to notify, console and guide the bereaved next of kin through the process of burying their loved one.
Often portrayed on TV and in movies, the initial notification stage may feel familiar: a Marine in uniform approaches the family's home, enters and informs survivors of their loss. It's a ritual that's part prescribed and part improvised, says Ruiz.
Bringing the next of kin inside their home before delivering the news is a must, and not just for privacy's sake.
"You definitely want to make sure that you can be there in case they decide they want to try to do something," he says, as there's simply no way to know how people will react.
This is where all the planning in the world could break down.
"It's a very difficult experience," Ruiz says. "You can't write a script to it because, like I said, everybody's different, you're going to get different reactions."
And the circumstances of every death are different, which can affect the process.
"Sometimes it's not always, unfortunately, KIA — killed in action," he says. "Sometimes it's motorcycle accidents or car accidents or again, unfortunately, it's suicide."
Though difficult, that initial interaction often leads to a lasting relationship because CACOs are also tasked with assisting the family in making memorial and funeral arragements and filing for government benefits, providing the family wants the help. That also means doing a lot of paperwork.
"You're that piece. You're there to help them to, you know, get through this process and start the healing," he says. "You give them your cell phone number and (say), 'If you have any questions at any point in time, please, by all means, call me.'"
One time, the wife of a close friend asked Ruiz to be part of the escort after her husband was killed in Afghanistan, accompanying the body from Dover Air Force Base to Arlington National Cemetary.
"For me it was a great honor," he says. "(You) feel a sense of pride, and just the belonging, to want to be there, to stand next to the Marine and just be there with them the entire time."
In the best of cases, these end-of-life rites and rituals strengthen bonds among Marines and bring their surviving family members into the fold.
However, Ruiz admits, "It's very taxing on you emotionally and physically. You kind of become a part of that family and what they're going through."