SOS offers safe zone for survivors
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Sgt. 1st Class Mike Ehrhart, casualty assistance officer, explains the significance of the ribbons to James and Jae McCullough during a ceremony at Survivor Outreach Services, Feb. 26. Their son, Sgt. Ryan McCullough, died Jan. 24. During the ceremony, the McCulloughs were presented with a flag, flag case and Department of Defense-issued Gold Star Next of Kin pins.

Through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army learned lessons in dealing with the aftermath of war and the care of fallen Soldiers' Families, lessons that led to the creation of Survivor Outreach Services in 2009.

"Even just dating back seven years ago when my husband passed away, there was no SOS," said Nanette Byrne-Haupt, SOS support coordinator. "I can look then and look now … there's an SOS program at every installation. It's a place where people have answers, where (survivors) can get help."

With the program, the care provided to Soldiers' Families continues beyond the initial bereavement period.

"Now, it's long-term care … you have the casualty assistance officer who walks the Family through (the process), and (the Army) has extended that with the SOS," Paul McShan, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors representative.

After a Family loses a Soldier, a CAO is assigned for up to six months. During that time, the CAO brings the survivors to SOS for a briefing on the services available, such as financial and personal counseling, support groups and Family activities.

One of the first topics covered is finance.

"In the very beginning, when there's benefits and finances, that's a huge service that's utilized right away," Byrne-Haupt said. "You've got to know about it, whether you want to or not."
A lot of survivors don't want to talk about money.

"I've heard it a thousand times -- 'I'm not interested in the money. I just want him back,'" said Gigi Wilson, SOS financial counselor.

It's critical for survivors to be aware of the potential financial pitfalls, though.

"(Disreputable) financial advisers out there know or find out about their situation … and sometimes they hit (survivors) at their weakest point," Wilson said.

There's also the potential for theft of the fallen Soldier's identity.

"(I tell them), 'We need to make sure we guard your loved one's legacy and their identity. I know we should not be talking about this, but there's an urgency because this is what's going to happen if we don't,'" she said.

In addition, SOS serves as a liaison between the survivor and other agencies, both on and off post.

"It's hard for survivors to navigate … so (we serve) as a liaison for the survivors and helping them track whatever it is that they need at the time," Byrne-Haupt said.

One of the major benefits of SOS is the opportunity to be with other survivors.

"A lot of (them), especially civilians that don't have a lot of knowledge of the military, it's the point for them to come together and get to know other survivors, as well, because a lot of people don't know how to deal with death," said Angela Gunn, SOS program manager. "People who were your friends before, they don't know how to deal with it. But here they can come and talk to other people who are in a similar situation."

McShan, in addition to being a TAPS representative, is also a Gold Star father.

"(SOS) is a safety zone," he said. "If you come in here and have a meltdown, nobody's going to pay any attention to it. We've already been there, done that. It's normal. That's the biggest benefit, being surrounded by people (who) understand where you're coming from and can support you."
SOS serves, not only the Families of active-duty fallen Soldiers, but also servicemembers from other branches of the military, retirees, civilian employees and Soldiers who lose Family members.

"(That's) new for us because we're set up just to help Army Families, survivors of fallen Soldiers … but we don't turn them down," Gunn said. "It would be awful to come in here, and you put yourself in that situation. You need help and somebody tells you, 'I can't help you because we don't have the space. We're only supposed to help these types of people.'"

The staff at SOS strives to make it a second home for survivors.
"(We) validate their feelings. What you're feeling right now, it's OK. You're not the first one to feel this way," Wilson said. "When they leave this space, they're not sad … this is a place that actually understands what (they're) going through. It's not like any other place."

Survivors can stay with SOS for as long as they want.

"It's good (when) they're at the point where they don't need us anymore," Gunn said. "But (they) can always come back."

Page last updated Thu February 27th, 2014 at 00:00