USA — Casey Pledges Ongoing Support of Survivors

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28, 2010 — Army lead­ers are com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing long-term sup­port to sur­vivors of the mil­i­tary fall­en, and will con­tin­ue to cre­ate and expand pro­grams and resources that will help to achieve that goal, the Army chief of staff said yes­ter­day.

“You need to know that your loved one’s sac­ri­fice is both rec­og­nized and appre­ci­at­ed and won’t be for­got­ten,” Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. told an audi­ence of sur­vivors and the peo­ple who sup­port them dur­ing the 2010 Asso­ci­a­tion of the U.S. Army Annu­al Meet­ing and Expo­si­tion here. “That’s our com­mit­ment to you.”

Casey, accom­pa­nied by his wife, Sheila, spoke on the impor­tance of sur­vivor care dur­ing a two-hour fam­i­ly forum, one of four held dur­ing AUSA’s meet­ing intend­ed to put a spot­light on mil­i­tary fam­i­lies and the chal­lenges they face.

Casey traced his pas­sion for the issue and desire to help sur­vivors back to his own loss. Just before earn­ing his Army com­mis­sion in 1970, Casey’s father, Army Maj. Gen. George W. Casey Sr., was killed in com­bat.

Decades lat­er, Casey and his wife embarked on a jour­ney to speak with sur­viv­ing Army fam­i­lies around the world to gauge how they were cop­ing, and what the Army was doing to sup­port them. It became clear to both that after five years at war, the Army was just doing casu­al­ty assis­tance, and not much else, he said.

Sur­vivors also expressed a need to stay con­nect­ed with the Army for a longer time, rather than be cut off from the peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tion they had come to see as fam­i­ly.

“We had to fig­ure out how to oper­a­tional­ize those two thoughts,” Casey said.

The result was Army Sur­vivor Out­reach Ser­vices, also known as SOS, which launched in April 2008 to pro­vide ded­i­cat­ed and com­pre­hen­sive sup­port to sur­vivors. Lead­ers tried to build a process with enough struc­ture to call it a pro­gram, but with enough flex­i­bil­i­ty to address indi­vid­ual needs, Casey said.

“Griev­ing is a very indi­vid­ual process,” he explained. “You can’t have a cook­ie-cut­ter solu­tion.”

Casey said he relies on feed­back from a sur­vivor pan­el that he cre­at­ed ear­ly on and includes spous­es and par­ents of mil­i­tary fall­en. He also heav­i­ly relies on feed­back from oth­er sur­vivors across the Army, he said, as he invit­ed the audi­ence to voice their spe­cif­ic issues and con­cerns.

A sur­viv­ing spouse expressed a need for bet­ter pre­pared­ness. She was for­tu­nate, she said, that her hus­band dis­cussed his wish­es for every­thing from his funer­al to his chil­dren pri­or to deploy­ment, which saved her from hav­ing to do so at a very stress­ful time. But many oth­ers don’t want to broach the top­ic, whether for fear of pre­dict­ing the unthink­able or for a lack of the right words. She sug­gest­ed the Army cre­ate a train­ing pro­gram to instill the impor­tance of these dis­cus­sions and to pass on resources that can help them pre­pare.

“Those are the kinds of dis­cus­sions that are very dif­fi­cult to have,” Sheila Casey said. “But I think that they are very impor­tant con­ver­sa­tions.” It’s a gift to know what a spouse or fam­i­ly mem­ber wants for their funer­al or for their chil­dren, she added.

Casey agreed it’s nec­es­sary to plan. His son just returned from a deploy­ment in Afghanistan, and his son’s wife approached him with ques­tions about what would hap­pen if the unthink­able occurred. “That spoke vol­umes about her strength,” he said.

Cre­at­ing a struc­tured Army pro­gram for this issue is chal­leng­ing, he acknowl­edged, since it involves such a per­son­al top­ic. And train­ing still isn’t a guar­an­tee that sol­diers will take the steps to pre­pare, he added.

Hear­ing sto­ries from oth­ers can be just as help­ful, he said. “But we are tak­ing on the train­ing part of this,” he added.

An audi­ence mem­ber praised the military’s sup­port of sur­viv­ing spous­es, but said many par­ents end up feel­ing unpre­pared and lost in the wake of a mil­i­tary death. Those with­out any mil­i­tary affil­i­a­tions can end up feel­ing con­fused and are lack­ing in the same long-term sup­port spous­es receive, she said.

Robert Stoke­ly, a mem­ber of the Army’s sur­vivor pan­el and a sur­viv­ing par­ent, field­ed that ques­tion for Casey. The main focus should be on the spouse and chil­dren, but par­ents and sib­lings need atten­tion as well, he said. Sib­lings, par­tic­u­lar­ly, have received lit­tle to no sup­port, he added.

“I was one of those dads who had no clue what the Army life was about,” he said. “I had to learn a lot fast, and I’m still learn­ing a lot.”

Plan­ning for worst-case sce­nar­ios is just as impor­tant for fam­i­ly mem­bers as it is for the spouse, he said. “If you don’t [pre­pare], you’ll get swept off your feet if it hap­pens to your fam­i­ly,” he said.

Anoth­er sur­vivor said her hus­band returned safe­ly from a deploy­ment in Afghanistan only to take his own life on his daughter’s birth­day in 2007. She applaud­ed the mil­i­tary for its sui­cide pre­ven­tion efforts, but said more needs to be done. Sui­cide car­ries a stig­ma that cre­ates iso­la­tion and an incom­pa­ra­ble loss, she not­ed.

“Not only did I lose my hus­band of 10 years, I lost my mil­i­tary fam­i­ly and my entire unit,” she said. “They don’t know what to say to you.” She said she found help through SOS, but the mil­i­tary needs to expand on these types of pro­grams to com­bat a grow­ing prob­lem.

Casey agreed. “We’re all, frankly, frus­trat­ed by our inabil­i­ty to stem the tide on sui­cides with all the huge effort going on in this area,” he said. “It’s some­thing that’s not just an Army prob­lem, it’s a soci­etal prob­lem.”

The Army’s five-year men­tal health study – the largest of its type on sui­cides – has the poten­tial for enor­mous pay­offs, Casey pre­dict­ed. “It’s already giv­en us great insights,” he said.

Lead­ers also are focus­ing on pro­grams that are designed to build strength, so sui­cide won’t become an option. Casey cit­ed the Com­pre­hen­sive Sol­dier Fit­ness Pro­gram, which fea­tures online men­tal health assess­ments and train­ing mod­ules, as a tool that can help both sol­diers and fam­i­lies build resilience.

The Army needs to raise men­tal fit­ness to the same lev­el as phys­i­cal fit­ness so seek­ing care for an emo­tion­al issue becomes com­pa­ra­ble to seek­ing help for a phys­i­cal wound, Casey said. Doing so will make inroads into com­bat­ing the stig­ma pre­vent­ing peo­ple from seek­ing help, he added.

Casey said he’s encour­aged by evi­dence that the Army is mak­ing head­way. Sur­veys show that 50 per­cent of sol­diers now would be will­ing to seek men­tal health care. In years past, 90 per­cent said they would­n’t, for fear of career reper­cus­sions.

Change will take time, but lead­ers are work­ing on build­ing on ser­vices so they can have the biggest impact for sur­vivors, Casey said.

“Know you have a voice, and let us help you make your voice heard,” he said.

“I ask you to con­tin­ue fight­ing the fight, because as you do it, things will change,” Sheila Casey added. “Don’t let up.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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