DoD, ACS send 'SOS' to Families
April 9, 2009
- Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (800) 959-8277 (TAPS)
- Army Long Term Family Case Management (866) 272-5841
FORT HOOD, Texas (April 9, 2009) -- Army Families who have lost a Soldier now have a new Army program to assist them...and it comes with a face.
Survivor Outreach Services is working to put a face with the information and support Families seek after the death of a Soldier.
Replacing impersonal phone calls about benefits and entitlements, the Department of the Army's SOS program will assist Families with everything from advocacy and grief support to Army resources and survivor services using a face-to-face approach.
Offered through Army Community Services, the program is available to all Families that have lost a servicemember, regardless of the circumstances or cause of death.
With the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of the Army recognized the need for services for survivors and is applying lessons learned from the past as they develop the SOS program.
Staff members at SOS work as advocates for survivors, catering to the needs of the Families served. They also provide information regarding benefits and entitlements and links to Army resources.
"We try to cater the program to the Families' needs," said Janeth Lopez, SOS program coordinator.
Learning what they needed was not easy.
In order to best support Families that have lost Soldiers, SOS needed to hear from Family members.
Lopez's first job was to attempt to contact all the Families in the Fort Hood Casualty Assistance Center's database to meet the Family members and get a feel for their experiences.
SOS staff conducted three focus groups in an effort to contact every Family of every fallen Soldier in the Fort Hood CAC's area of responsibility.
During the focus groups, SOS was looking for feedback from the Families regarding their experiences following the loss of a loved one as well as getting a sense of services and programs that are needed.
They met with Families and representatives from children's grief camps to make contact and learn about their experiences and needs.
"Right now, we want to make them aware of the program," Lopez said.
The program offers support groups for adults and children as well as other support and advocacy services.
Located in the Gold Star Family Support Center on Battalion Avenue, Survivor Outreach Services has picked up the support services formerly offered through Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors.
"We will continue outreach and services," Lopez said.
Input from HUGSS representatives and volunteers has been gathered to assist with the transition from a non-profit tenant organization's services into SOS's Army-funded program.
HUGSS, the group that provided support for Gold Star Families at Fort Hood, ceased operations this year following a vote by the non-profit's board members, Lopez said.
"The transition has been smooth," Lopez said. "We will continue to assist and support the HUGSS Family members."
Lopez hopes to work with other agencies and non-profit organizations that are dedicated to providing support, assistance and advocacy to Families who have lost a Soldier or other servicemember.
With Family input, SOS will be expanded to offer additional programs and events to meet Families' needs.
Debbie Busch, founder of HUGSS, said she is "totally confident the SOS staff will do a great job."
Support groups and activities for survivors will be conducted.
Representatives at SOS can do research to address Families' questions and concerns about benefits and entitlements and other issues following the loss of a Soldier.
Two full-time support coordinators are available to provide Families one-on-one assistance and plan support groups.
A financial counselor will provide financial assistance including investment education and estate planning.
A benefits coordinator who works for SOS from the Casualty Assistance Center will assist Families with local, state and federal benefits to which they are entitled.
An SOS trainer will coordinate training with all levels of the CAC from notification teams to casualty assistance officers and funeral honors.
Family Life Coaches also are available at SOS to provide assistance as licensed clinical social workers who specialize in grief and trauma.
"Our goal is to ease their experiences as much as possible," Lopez said.
In addition, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a national peer support organization, has two representatives working at the SOS office to provide support, assistance and advocacy to Families who have lost a Soldier.
Vanessa Gabrielson, a TAPS representative who works out of the Fort Hood SOS office, has worked for the non-profit agency for five years.
"Being here allows us to reach out to Fort Hood Families," Gabrielson said.
Headquartered in Washington, TAPS provides activities, support and social gatherings to Families of fallen servicemembers.
Gabrielson has served as a youth mentor with the organization.
"It's neat for us to get more involved with these Families," she said.
Gabrielson's father, Sgt. 1st Class Dan Gabrielson, was killed July 9, 2003, in Baqubah, Iraq, when his convoy was attacked.
She found out about TAPS and the organization's work after her mother and a friend went to Washington to see the Faces of the Fallen exhibit. Gabrielson's mother was seated next to the founder of TAPS and the two talked.
Shortly thereafter, Gabrielson, a former school teacher, began working with TAPS as a mentor to children.
In 2005, Gabrielson worked with a 7-year-old girl whose father was killed in Iraq.
When it was time for the two to part, Gabrielson found out the girl's birthday is July 9 - the same day Gabrielson's father was killed. Such incidents have confirmed for Gabrielson that she is doing what she was meant to do.
"There is no doubt in my mind." she said.
Gabrielson works in an office situated across the street from the 4th Infantry Division Headquarters and the division memorial that includes her father's name. He was attached to 4th Inf. Div. when he was killed. She has yet to visit and search for his name.
Gabrielson has come a long way since the first time she attended a TAPS event five years ago.
"I couldn't even say my dad's name," she said.
Now, she freely shares her ongoing experiences through the grief process and talks openly about her father.
"It's amazing to go through that in five years," Gabrielson said.
Working with TAPS is her way of "paying it forward," Gabrielson said.
By sharing her experiences in a social peer network, Gabrielson has found others who share such experiences. It has been a mutually beneficial relationship because she gets to talk about her father while helping and relating to others with a similar loss.
"As long as I am telling people about my dad, he's not going to be forgotten." Gabrielson said.
"I have gotten so much in the last five years," she said. "Not doing this would be a waste."
Having TAPS representatives located in the SOS office only adds to the resources to serve Families of the fallen.
"It's about the Families and getting them what they need," Lopez said.
Since the program is part of Army Community Services, SOS can easily link into other ACS programs, such as the Financial Readiness Branch and Family Advocacy Program.
As a result, Families will have better access to those programs.
Staff from SOS also will work out of the Casualty Assistance Center at Fort Hood.
"Wherever there is a casualty assistance center, there will be an SOS program," Lopez said.
Lee Price, the Fort Hood Casualty Assistance Center chief, said the SOS program is good for all casualty assistance centers in the Army because the level of care is now standard throughout the Army.
"SOS standardizes assistance to Families who have lost a Soldier," Price said. "It enhances support that is already there."
In the long-term, SOS will put a face to information and support formerly delivered through an impersonal phone call, Price added.
Establishment of the SOS program also has given reach back capabilities to records the CAC did not have before.
Previously, CAC files were closed three years after a death, Price said.
Now, the SOS staff has access to records for a much longer time period, an important ability since some benefits and entitlements extend beyond the three years following the death of a Soldier.
Working jointly with casualty assistance will only enhance the quality and number of services available to Families.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is a nationwide non-profit organization that provides support and resources to Families that have lost a servicemember.
TAPS was founded in 1994 by Bonnie Carroll after her husband and seven others were killed in a plane crash in Alaska.
The organization provides a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week hotline for Gold Star Families and others who have lost a servicemember.
Among other programs and events the organization sponsors, grief camps, conferences and other events are hosted by TAPS to assist grieving Families.
For more information, visit the Web site at www.taps.org.
The hotline number is (800) 959-8277 (TAPS) or Army Long Term Family Case Management (866)272-5841.