I commanded the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart as part of the surge in Iraq in 2007-’08. During that time, 153 Soldiers died in combat. I pray for their families every day. Their loss is something I, as a leader, have to live with.
For any leader, the loss of a Soldier hits hard. But the loss that survivors experience is magnitudes deeper and wider because they have lost not just a Soldier, but a friend, a son or daughter, a husband or wife, a father or mother.
When I visit installations, I meet with those who have lost loved ones on active duty because they need to know that the Army recognizes and honors their Soldiers’ service and sacrifice. I also speak with them because, as the commander of Installation Management Command, I need to know how we are doing with one of our newest programs: Survivor Outreach Services.
Survivor Outreach Services was established in April 2008 to support and care for those left behind. Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. propelled the effort to support survivors beyond casualty assistance. Casualty assistance officers work with families during a heartrending time when they are notified of their Soldier’s death and have to make funeral arrangements and decisions about entitlements and benefits.
But grief cannot be resolved in a set time period. With the help of a panel of survivors selected by Casey, SOS was developed to provide longer term, expanded support and care, taking up where casualty assistance ends.
SOS, an Army OneSource program, offers support through benefits coordinators who help survivors understand and apply for local, state and federal benefits; financial counselors who assist through investment and estate planning education; and support coordinators who facilitate support groups, provide life skills education and connect survivors with counseling resources.
More than 200 SOS personnel are now working on installations throughout the U.S. and overseas, including National Guard and reserve locations.
There is no time limit on SOS services. SOS coordinators extend a hand to survivors in the first few months after a Soldier’s death, but survivors do not have to accept assistance right then or ever. They can decide to return months or years later. The important thing is for survivors to know that they are part of the Army family for as long as they want to be.
There are also no exclusions in the definition of a survivor. For the SOS program, a survivor is anyone — immediate family, extended family, a friend, a fellow warrior — who feels the loss of a Soldier. Every survivor is not entitled to the same benefits under law or regulations, but SOS coordinators will work with any survivor to access counseling and other resources.
SOS staff has made tremendous progress in a short time, receiving more than 24,000 cases from Casualty and Mortuary Affairs and continually reaching out to survivors, both those who have suffered a loss recently and those whose loss pre-dates the program. This past year, when it became clear that survivors who do not have ID cards were having difficulty getting onto post, SOS developed a survivor vehicle decal program.
The loss of a Soldier is not a topic people want to talk about, but it is a reality of military life. We do what we can to prevent losses. In the end, though, despite our best efforts, we cannot prevent every loss. That is why SOS is so crucial. We can do one last thing to honor the fallen Soldier’s service and sacrifice for our nation — offer support for the loved ones the Soldier left behind.
For more information on SOS, visit www.myarmyonesource.com and click on the “Family Programs and Services” link.