America’s Families: Caring for Our Survivors 

10/27/2010 

Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., Army chief of staff, and his wife Sheila honored military family survivors at the fourth military family forum of the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition on Oct. 27. 

“You need to know that your loved one’s sacrifice is recognized and appreciated and won’t be forgotten,” said Gen. Casey.

Two years ago, the Caseys initiated Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) <http://www.myarmyonesource.com/FamilyProgramsandServices/SurvivingFamilies/SurvivorOutreachServices.aspx>  when they discovered that the Army was not doing enough to take care of survivors, many of whom felt the Army was their home and wanted to stay connected.  Gen. Casey said they have tried to build a program that has enough Army structure to help, but flexible enough to meet survivors’ individual needs.  At the founding of SOS, he created a panel of survivors to advise him on the difficulties that they face, and the panel continues to meet and offer suggestions and input. 

Many survivors attended the forum and used the opportunity to express gratitude for SOS, and also to question the Caseys about topics of concern, including suicide among both soldiers and spouses, benefits for survivors and the overall need for more survivor assistance.

“You’ve got a voice,” Mrs. Casey said.  “Let us help you make that voice heard.”

Maj. Gen. Reuben D. Jones, commanding general of family and morale, welfare and recreation, extended the discussion of SOS.  He said that the program aims to embrace and reassure survivors that the Army will always be there for them.  He introduced a new SOS pin, logo and decal.  The decal, labeled with the fallen soldier’s serial number, is designed to reduce bureaucratic friction for survivors and make it easier for them to get into installations.

Col. Robert F. McLaughlin, Fort Carson garrison commander, spoke about the fort’s newly opened Fallen Heroes Family Center.  He said that the center embodies a passion and purpose to help survivors, involves community partners and offers a place to gather and connect.  The center provides emotional counseling, financial training, support groups for Gold Star fathers and male spouses, and mentoring for youth.

Cynthia A. Jones, legislative assistant on military, foreign and veterans’ affairs to Senator Mary Landrieu, D=La., encouraged survivors to educate their legislators about military issues.  She said that most lawmakers are unaware that the word “family” in benefits legislation does not include survivors.  Her contact info is Cynthia_jones@landrieu.senate.gov

The forum concluded with a presentation on understanding military loss given by Jill Harrington LaMorie, director of professional education and training for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) <http://www.taps.org/> , and Joanne M. Steen, founder of Grief Solutions <http://www.griefsolutions.net/>  and co-author of “Military Widow:  A Survival Guide.”

Military deaths are often unexpected and sudden, occur in distant places and involve trauma or violence, LaMorie said.  The soldier’s bodily remains may not be intact or recoverable. Military deaths can also occur after a long separation from the soldier’s family; there may be multiple deaths in a command or unit, and there may be distracting media coverage. The death notification process itself may also be traumatic for survivors. Moreover, most soldiers are young, and they leave behind young families that are often ill-equipped developmentally to deal with death. All of these factors make grieving difficult for loved ones.

Steen said survivors need to accept the reality of the loss, work through the pain, acquaint themselves with a new normal and, eventually, choose to reinvest in life.  When survivors examine the unanswerable whys, she said, they do not find closure, but they ultimately find peace of mind by accepting the reality of the event, learning to live happily in the present and looking forward to the future.

Susan M. Sipprelle