USA — Program Provides Support for Fallen Soldiers’ Families

WASHINGTON — Inside a one-sto­ry build­ing under­go­ing ren­o­va­tions at the far side of the com­mis­sary park­ing lot here, fam­i­lies of fall­en sol­diers are get­ting the sup­port and ser­vices they need and reas­sur­ance that the Army won’t for­get them or their sac­ri­fices.

Survivor Outreach Services program at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Gold Star Moth­er Sheila Pat­ton, senior advi­sor for the Sur­vivor Out­reach Ser­vices pro­gram at Fort Camp­bell, Ky., left, lights the a memo­r­i­al can­dle with assis­tance from Lore­ta Guz­man, SOS finan­cial coun­selor, dur­ing a can­dle­light vig­il at the post’s McAu­li­ffe Hall. SOS host­ed the cer­e­mo­ny to hon­or moth­ers who have lost a child serv­ing in the armed forces.
U.S. Army pho­to by Megan Locke
Click to enlarge

The build­ing, the new home of Fort Campbell’s Sur­vivor Out­reach Ser­vices pro­gram, offers a haven for about 1,000 Gold Star fam­i­ly mem­bers through­out Ten­nessee and in much of Ken­tucky. It’s being equipped as a “home away from home,” with a kitchen and din­ing room, com­put­er room, play area for chil­dren, a game room for teenagers and on-site child-care services. 

A Hall of Remem­brance being built with­in the facil­i­ty will hon­or the fall­en ser­vice­mem­bers who have brought these fam­i­lies togeth­er. Each fam­i­ly will con­tribute a pho­to­graph of their loved one to be dis­played in the hall. 

Suzy Yates, inter­im Sur­vivor Out­reach Ser­vices pro­gram man­ag­er, said the idea is to make fam­i­lies feel com­fort­able and wel­comed as they tap into the sup­port, infor­ma­tion and ser­vices avail­able to help them as they deal with their loss. 

The Army launched the pro­gram ser­vicewide in Octo­ber 2008 to enhance its care and sup­port for fam­i­lies of the fall­en. Fort Camp­bell, home of the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion “Scream­ing Eagles,” unveiled its own pro­gram in 2009, tai­lor­ing it to the needs iden­ti­fied by focus groups of sur­viv­ing fam­i­ly members. 

The staff brings a broad range of exper­tise to help fam­i­lies. Ben­e­fits coor­di­na­tors pro­vide exper­tise on local, state and fed­er­al ben­e­fits. Work­ing with casu­al­ty assis­tance offi­cers, they help sur­viv­ing fam­i­lies apply for ben­e­fits they’re enti­tled to. Finan­cial coun­selors help them through invest­ment and estate plan­ning. Sup­port coor­di­na­tors pro­vide long-term sup­port, facil­i­tat­ing sup­port groups, pro­vid­ing life skills edu­ca­tion and con­nect­ing sur­vivors with coun­sel­ing resources. 

“This should be a one-stop shop for our fam­i­lies, where they can access all the resources avail­able to help them through a dif­fi­cult time,” Yates said. Mean­while, the SOS pro­gram also offers what Yates said is often the most-val­ued sup­port ser­vice of all: a com­mu­ni­ty of fam­i­lies who share the same sense of loss. “They want to know they are not alone,” she said. 

Fam­i­lies take com­fort in each oth­er dur­ing a host of activ­i­ties orga­nized through SOS, from sup­port group ses­sions to can­dle­light vig­ils for their loved ones to social events that enable them to let their hair down and have fun. “There’s a sense of under­stand­ing they find in each oth­er that cre­ates a very spe­cial bond,” Yates said. Sheila Pat­ton, whose son, Army Staff Sgt. James R. “Jim­my” Pat­ton, died April 18 in a heli­copter crash in Tikrit, Iraq, serves as senior advi­sor for Fort Campbell’s SOS pro­gram. “This is long-term, and it is much-need­ed,” she said. “The staff is phe­nom­e­nal over there. They are doing every­thing they can for sur­viv­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers: spous­es, chil­dren, par­ents, sib­lings. They are reach­ing out and try­ing to touch everyone.” 

Yates said the pro­gram under­scores the Army’s endur­ing com­mit­ment to sur­viv­ing fam­i­lies. Fam­i­lies “want to know that the Army is not going to for­get them,” she said. 

“And that is what the Sur­vivor Out­reach Ser­vices pro­gram was put in place to do: stay in con­tact with fam­i­lies and let them know, ‘Your sol­dier paid the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice, and the Army is not going to for­get your fam­i­ly,’ ” she added. “We will always take care of you. And there will always be a place for you to go.” 

In Octo­ber, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. empha­sized that point to sur­viv­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers attend­ing the Asso­ci­a­tion of the U.S. Army’s Annu­al Meet­ing and Expo­si­tion in Wash­ing­ton. “You need to know that your loved one’s sac­ri­fice is both rec­og­nized and appre­ci­at­ed and won’t be for­got­ten,” he said. 

For Mary Byers, whose son, Army Capt. Joshua Byers, was killed July 23, 2003, by a road­side bomb as he con­voyed from Rama­di to Fal­lu­jah in Iraq, the SOS pro­gram offers a con­nec­tion to the mil­i­tary she’d thought was lost. Her son, who was assigned to Head­quar­ters Troop, 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 3rd Armored Cal­vary Reg­i­ment, based at Fort Car­son, Colo., was mar­ried, which essen­tial­ly cut his moth­er and father out of the military’s infor­ma­tion and sup­port chain. 

“We felt like the mil­i­tary had desert­ed us,” Byers said. She not­ed that the mil­i­tary has made amends, now assign­ing casu­al­ty assis­tance offi­cers to par­ents of mar­ried sol­diers and keep­ing them in the infor­ma­tion loop. 

Byers, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., said she was thrilled when Fort Campbell’s new SOS pro­gram reached out to her and her hus­band. The staff helped them get pass­es to dri­ve onto the post with­out hav­ing to check into the visitor’s cen­ter every time they attend an SOS func­tion, offered finan­cial plan­ning ser­vices, and intro­duced them to oth­er Gold Star families. 

Now Byers attends as many SOS events as pos­si­ble, and enjoys get­ting phone calls and friend­ly e‑mails from the SOS staff to check in on her and see if there’s any­thing they can do to help. “It means a lot to me to know that some­body cares,” she said. “This con­nec­tion real­ly means a lot.” 

Casey not­ed at the AUSA con­ven­tion that the SOS pro­gram is still in its infan­cy and will con­tin­ue to devel­op to meet fam­i­ly mem­bers’ needs. Rec­og­niz­ing that “griev­ing is a very indi­vid­ual process,” he said, not­ing there’s no “cook­ie-cut­ter solu­tion” that works for everyone. 

Fam­i­lies served through SOS are at dif­fer­ent phas­es of the griev­ing process, Yates not­ed. Some are brought to the SOS office by their casu­al­ty assis­tance offi­cer, the pain of their loved one’s funer­al still fresh in their minds. 

As Fort Campbell’s SOS staff makes con­tact with fam­i­lies of the fall­en in their geo­graph­ic area –- regard­less of what ser­vice their loved one served in and whether or not the death was com­bat relat­ed — Yates said she has been sur­prised to hear from wid­ows dat­ing back to the Viet­nam era. 

Although the pro­gram was ini­ti­at­ed to serve fam­i­lies who have lost a ser­vice­mem­ber since 9/11, “we do not turn any sur­viv­ing fam­i­ly mem­ber away,” she said. Sim­i­lar­ly, there’s no defin­i­tive amount of time that fam­i­lies will want to remain con­nect­ed to the SOS pro­gram, Yates added. 

“The sur­viv­ing fam­i­ly deter­mines how much or how lit­tle con­tact they have,” she said. “As they go through the griev­ing process, it’s all up to them. We will always be there for them, as lit­tle or as much as they want. We will be there today, tomor­row, 10 years from now. When­ev­er they want assis­tance, we are here for them.” 

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

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