Survivor Outreach Services: Celebrating one-year anniversary, looking forward
October 29, 2010
- 1st year anniversary
- Wall of Remembrance
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - Working day in and day out with family members whose Soldiers have given their lives for their country might be more than some people could handle. But for Michelle Benjamin, Survivor Outreach Services support coordinator for the northern and Interior region of Alaska, working with and advocating for survivors is her passion and has become her life's mission.
"I found my purpose in life and it's to give back to those who have also given back to their country," she said. Serving those who have lost so much is not a purely emotional decision, Benjamin said. It just makes sense.
"How do you not honor someone whose family - spouse, mother, father, sibling - has made the ultimate sacrifice," she asked. "How do you not honor them' How do you not have a caring heart' How do you not go above and beyond and give that true 1000 percent of yourself'"
Designed to support, advocate and provide resources for survivors of fallen service members in the northern and Interior region of Alaska, Fort Wainwright's SOS program is approaching its one-year anniversary and Benjamin said the ceremony, "Survivor Outreach Services, A Year in the Making" celebration, Dec. 1, 5 to 7:30 p.m. at Birch Hill lodge, will be her opportunity to celebrate those who have helped shape the program and make the first year so successful.
"It will be a fun time for the survivors and our volunteers and supporters of SOS to come out and we'll show our appreciation and (gratitude) to everyone who helped us this past year in setting everything up and getting everything going," she said.
Looking back over the past year, Benjamin cited locating and drawing in survivors to the program as her chief accomplishment.
"Through the Army Family Covenant, survivors have formed the program and made all the key decisions for the program worldwide," she said. "They are and will always be the backbone of SOS so it's so important to me that they be involved in our local program and feel welcome, helped and know that they can be a part of SOS however and whenever they want and for as long as they desire."
Other program accomplishments include monthly support group meetings, a new SOS page on Facebook and monthly newsletters that will begin featuring survivor columns tackling issues important to them.
"I'm excited about that," Benjamin said about the program's Facebook page and newsletter. "We will also post commentaries from survivors and how they feel about the program and things that they're concerned with -- issues and problems -- so we can look at better ways of resolving those issues and problems for our survivors. So they'll have a commentary section now in our monthly newsletter as well as on our Facebook page."
Benjamin also plans to incorporate more social outings and events for survivors and their families like bowling nights or curling club matches. Special events are a great way to honor survivors, increase awareness of the SOS program and provide a way for survivors and their families to have fun, she said. A team of more than 50 survivors, friends, family members and program volunteers donned matching shirts, carried an SOS banner and took up an entire section at last month's Lt. Dan Band concert at Eielson Air Force Base.
"We don't want to always dwell on that which we have no control over," she said. "We can't always dwell on the loss of the loved one. But what we can do, for, SOS purposes, is ensure that the families are well-taken-care-of and that the families have an avenue to get away from all of that; some de-stressing avenues to just get away."
Fort Wainwright's SOS program is housed in the Army Community Service building and was recently revamped to offer survivors a place to get away, feel pampered, find the help they need and have a place of their own.
The SOS suite has its own private entrance and features amenities like a computer work station, a massage chair, a complete resource library, hot and cold beverages and snacks, television and toys for children.
"This is a place you can feel warm and welcome and (find) a little peace and tranquility away from what you're facing out there," Benjamin said. "This is a place where families can just sit back and relax."
"I love it," said Maria Sutherland, wife of Staff Sgt. Stephen Sutherland who died in 2005 while deployed to Iraq with 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which is now 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
"It's not like they force us to be here or come here. We come here because we want to," she explained. "Even my son comes here now. Victor comes here maybe three days a week. It's amazing. I mean an 18-year-old I wouldn't think would want to come to a place like this, but Michelle made it to where we all feel comfortable and welcome if we want to come here."
Leading into the SOS area is a new Wall of Remembrance, featuring photos and names of the fallen.
Benjamin credits Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph T. McFarlane, 5-1st command sergeant major, with stepping in to make the wall happen.
McFarlane said that he and Lt. Col. David Raugh, 5-1st commander, partner with SOS because of their commitment to Maria Sutherland, whose husband was one of their own, and Benjamin because she does so much to help survivors.
We try "to help the agency and Ms. Benjamin as much as possible because of her unending commitment to the fallen," he said. "She was trying to accomplish the SOS wall by herself one day and we offered our expertise to assist in the completion. We wanted it to be squared away because it is the right thing to do for warriors of the past."
Beginning in November, Benjamin plans to begin "Breakfast at SOS" which will gather key leadership and organizations to discuss the way ahead in dealing with potential casualties during upcoming deployments.
"This will help us have a better understanding of what procedures need to be in place when a casualty does happen and where SOS fits in with all of it," she said. "We hope commanders, rear detachment commanders, first sergeants, key organizations and others will participate so we can get their input."
The SOS program is also an integral part of preparing Soldiers and families for deployment. Speaking during pre-deployment briefings, rear detachment commander trainings and family readiness group meetings and trainings, Benjamin said her mission is to educate.
"I want to make sure they understand why SOS is here and that we're here for the long term," she said.
"I want them to understand the procedures that go along with a casualty, how it starts with the Casualty Assistance Center and ends with SOS. I also (want) them to know that casualties don't necessarily happen in a time of war, but in times of peace as well, so we must be prepared at all times when something does happen."
Family readiness groups, volunteers and commanders have enthusiastically embraced the SOS program during the past year and the survivors see and appreciate their support, Benjamin said.
"I have received a lot of outreach from Lt. Col. Raugh and Cyndi, Command Sgt. Maj. McFarlane and others," Maria Sutherland said. "It has made a huge difference to me. I'm glad I decided to stay. They made me realize I made the right decision to stay here."
The past year has been a whirlwind, but Benjamin said bigger and better things for SOS and survivors are in the future.
"I see more collaborative efforts with nonprofit organizations. I see better learning as far as classes being taught; different avenues of which classes need to be taught; different awareness briefings; more marketing for the program. I see a better understanding of why the program is here for commanders and FRGs. It's all based on communication and how well and how effectively we communicate the mission and goals SOS has," she said.
But even as the program expands and takes on more, Benjamin said she will always have time to just stop and sit with a survivor as she remembers her Soldier and recounts the things he or she loved. "The first snowfall always makes me smile. He loved the snow," Maria Sutherland said about her husband. "I don't know ... I can just feel him that day. There's just something about the first snow."
Listening and being there as survivors like Maria Sutherland remember is the most important part of her day, Benjamin said.
"I honor Maria for her strength and her ability to do what she does. I thank her for that," she said. "You have to honor these family members. You just have to."