Team assists families who lose Soldiers
August 19, 2010
FORT SILL, Okla. -- In a world of turmoil, Soldiers may be neighbors and close friends one day and the next, one dies or is killed, leaving a family mired in shock and uncertainty.
During this time, the Army has a Survivor Outreach Services team at each post that can assist with benefits, financial concerns or other services such as counseling or support groups.
Kathy Carnahan, Fort Sill's SOS financial counselor, calls this transition period following a death a move to a new normal. It begins with casualty services where the SOS benefits coordinator briefs families about the SOS program and helps families understand the array of local, state and federal benefits, and how to apply for them.
"SOS services are here for the whole extended family and that includes brothers, sisters, grandparents," she said. "We are here for them in their time of need."
The Army began the SOS program in April, 2009 as a follow-up to information provided by casualty services. The program started after a 180-day period following the death from which casualty services handed each case over to the SOS office for follow-on assistance. This allowed families time to deal with their grief and get over the shock of their loss, to make funeral arrangements and inquire about and apply for Veterans Affairs benefits. But, this hand-off time varies from case to case. Carnahan said SOS is available to affected family members any time after the death, and SOS adapts their outreach according to those individual needs.
Debra Leffler, SOS support coordinator, has worked social services her entire adult life, including six years at Fort Sill; regardless of her length of service, Leffler's eyes still well up when discussing the people she serves and issues they face.
"I don't think anything can compare to the loss of our fallen Soldiers," she said. "They've given the ultimate sacrifice, and we honor that sacrifice by being there for their families as needed."
Those needs vary to just about any situation one may think of. Carnahan said an initial visit may help a family deal with creditors; a second visit six months later for information on education; and still later assistance in a major purchase such as buying a house or vehicle. Because of the Army's ongoing missions in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Carnahan encouraged families who lose Soldiers to seek financial counseling soon.
"Most of those families will be coming into a large amount of money, and SOS can help them decide what to do," she said. "Financial experts can help families get a handle on this financial windfall so they don't make too many decisions in that first year which can often be too fast."
Carnahan came into the SOS program with more than 15 years of financial counseling experience with the Army where she helped people develop budgets, work with creditors and resolve housing issues. But the financial readiness program varies greatly from SOS as in her previous work people came to her because of circumstances brought on by choices they made. SOS, on the other hand, provides help for families whose circumstances resulted from situations totally beyond their control.
"When Soldiers die and leave insurance, that is their last gift to their families," she said. "If I can help them make good choices with that gift, that's an honor."
The SOS office is open Mondays through Fridays, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. where the two women handle most issues. Ordinarily they prefer people to call ahead for appointments, but people are welcome to walk in, though they may be with another client already. These hours are flexible as Carnahan mentioned closing up the office one day when a woman stopped by with an issue that was troubling her. Rather than turn the person away empty handed, Carnahan stayed an extra couple hours to take care of the woman's needs.
Though they respond to many situations and needs each day, with outreach being the centerpiece of the SOS concept, the women do community events such as training seminars, briefing family readiness groups and visiting units on post. Leffler said they have realized providing information that people can take with them works a lot better than explaining the program. She said people will avoid discussing the program with her, because they realize their families are vulnerable. To off-set this concern, the women encourage people to learn about SOS, because they may know someone who could benefit from the information shared.
In addition to assisting the families of active duty Soldiers, SOS also assists families of military retirees. Carnahan said she has handled cases as complex as someone facing home loss to getting help with who to contact for Social Security benefits. And, though the office has a wealth of information, Leffler said there are plenty of issues that lie beyond their expertise. In these circumstances, SOS may refer a client to another post agency, or research the area of concern and follow-up with the client at a later date.
The Fort Sill office's area of responsibility is Oklahoma and Arkansas, and because that region is so large, the Army has placed an SOS support coordinator at National Guard posts in Oklahoma City and Little Rock, Ark. to assist people in those immediate locations.