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AUSA Day Three: Gold Star Families

The Family Forums at AUSA's annual conference wrapped up with what was one of the most important topics of the three-day conference - a focus on our Gold Star Families, and what the Army is doing to assist them and keep them connected to the larger Army family. As with the first day, GEN and Mrs. Casey opened the forum with a Q&A session in which Gold Star Families aired their concerns and posed questions.

There was a lot of talk from both survivors and GEN Casey about the Army's Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) Program.

Survivor Outreach Services, a relatively new Army program, is designed to provide a proactive approach in meeting the needs of survivors, while also helping others prepare in advance for the unexpected.

"The SOS program works with the spouse, children, siblings, parents and loco parentis of the deceased servicemember, and not just in war time," said Janine Smith, the Installation Management Command Europe Army Community Service SOS coordinator.

Whether the servicemember was killed in action, suffered a combat-related death, committed suicide or died in an automobile accident, Smith said SOS will provide the surviving families "continuous services, benefits and resources."

GEN Casey noted that this program is in its infancy and with any new program, he has found that it takes about two years to "get things going," so he expects the SOS program to mature over time. GEN Casey has a panel of Gold Star Families, including spouses and parents, advising him on the myriad of issues that Gold Star Families face and how the Army can help.

I found this Forum to be incredibly informative. There was a strong emphasis on being administratively prepared.Gold Star spouses and parents emphasized that families will be better equipped to deal with a loss if they've had honest conversations with their service member about what their last wishes are. Nickayla Garner, wife of Captain Mark Garner, said that her husband gave her a "precious gift" by planning his funeral. She knew exactly what he wanted and was able to execute his funeral based on his instructions. Gold Star Father Robert Stokely agreed, saying that "Parents have to have an honest conversation with their kids. If you're not prepared, you're going to get swept off your feet."

Several years ago, Mrs. Casey was at a luncheon at Ft. Bragg with Gold Star spouses. One of the spouses was not prepared for her husband's death, had no instructions from him as to funeral arrangements and she will always wonder if she buried him where he would have wanted to be buried. Mrs. Casey realized that she had never asked GEN Casey where he wanted to be buried. The will had been prepared, but the conversation hadn't taken place. GEN Casey said, "We punted, got the will done and didn't want to talk about it."Mrs. Casey acknowledged that these are "difficult conversation to have," but they are important.

And she's absolutely right, as the survivors reminded us.

One of the Gold Star wives spoke of husband committing suicide in their living room. Not only did she lose her husband, but she felt she lost her military family, too. In many instances, we find ourselves more connected to our military family than our blood family. Often, our military family can better relate to the lifestyle and what we're going through. For many survivors, losing their family member is bad enough, but leaving their military family adds another layer of stress to contend with. The Army recognizes this and it's why they are placing an emphasis on maintaining a connection between the Army and the survivor "for as long as they desire."

This forum was less Army-centric and more military-centric as these issues are not specific to Army families. I learned a lot from the speakers and attendees who brought their concerns to GEN Casey. There were so many topics of importance addressed (suicide, mental health, physical health, financial health, the length of time a surviving family has to transition out of the system) that it's impossible to give them their due in this recap post. We'll break down some of these issues and further explore them in the coming weeks.

Related:

AUSA Day Three: Interview with Gold Star Wife Bonnie Carroll of TAPS

AUSA Day Three: Interview with Gold Star Wife Joanne Steen

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