Survivors find help through SOS program
March 1, 2011
WIESBADEN, Germany - Sudarat Kirby transitioned from wife to widow with two children and too many questions.
Her husband, Staff Sgt. Darian Kirby, died in March 2010. After an unexpected turn in health, he was gone.
"I thought once my husband passed, that's it, we're out of the (Army) system," said Sudarat. "But no, that's not what happened."
For the last 11 months, Kirby has networked with a growing community of survivors in the Wiesbaden area. She has sat and listened as wives talked about their husbands.
She has asked questions about benefits and enrollment of her children in Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Europe.
And she has received answers.
The Survivor Outreach Services program was established Army-wide in April 2009 and in June 2009 in Germany. SOS is designed to ensure that all survivors of active duty Soldiers receive the benefits to which they are entitled and to encourage survivors no matter their nationalities to remain an integral part of the Army family.
"Our mission for SOS is to continuously provide a link for survivors to the Army for as long as they desire," said Janine Smith, the former SOS regional coordinator in Germany. "We're here to help them get things planned out for their new normal."
The new normal
Kirby tires of people continually asking her what unit her husband is with or telling her that time will heal all wounds.
"Stuff like that makes me mad," she said. "You don't know that time heals all wounds. They just don't know that it's true ... I've been trying to get back to how it was. Basically you have to live your life without your husband."
The SOS program in Wiesbaden provides a safe place for surviving families to meet, talk and ask questions about benefits.
"Our survivors don't want to tell their stories 20 different times. So if we can step in to help them find services we do," said Smith.
Many survivors stationed overseas when a Soldier dies move back to the States. For those families that stay, Smith said the SOS program provides an opportunity for social activities - two weekly meetings and a weekly bowling activity.
"Being a widow, unfortunately, is the thing I know," said Angela Augustus, a volunteer program manager assistant with the Wiesbaden SOS program, explaining why she has become so involved with the program.
Augustus was the first widow to be introduced into the Wiesbaden SOS program. Her husband, Sgt. Brandon Augustus, died in December 2008. Six months later Angela Augustus was tracked down by SOS program coordinators.
"I was happily surprised to know there was something for survivors," said Augustus. From social outings to support answering questions, Augustus said SOS is one of the best programs the Army has.
"They're just there for you when everyone else is done," she said.
Army-wide the SOS program standardizes casualty services and policies in the Army and provides additional staffing at Casualty Assistance Centers and in active and reserve component family programs.
Installation Management Command recently approved funding for six SOS support coordinator positions through the Directorate of Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation Europe region. One position has been designated for Wiesbaden.
Looking for survivors
The program's multiagency approach is part of an effort by the Army to provide comprehensive services at the installation level in order to reach geographically dispersed families.
"We know there still are survivors in the Wiesbaden community. We just haven't found them yet," said Mary Cima, the Wiesbaden Soldier and Family Assistance Center program manager and SOS liaison.
Program coordinators routinely review casualty lists looking for any family connections to Wiesbaden.
The Kirby family was in the middle of a permanent change of station move from Bamberg to the United States when Darian passed away. Sudarat Kirby had to make the decision whether to stay in the States or return home to Germany.
Smith called survivors "the constant reminders of what happens with wars when a Soldier dies."
The decisions surviving family members are forced to make are hard and come suddenly, said Smith. The SOS program is designed to ensure that the Army fulfills its covenant with survivors by providing preparedness in the event of a catastrophic event.
Cima was 11 years old when her father was killed in the Vietnam War. Forty-eight years later, at her first military welcome home function, the tears came.
"The kids started running around toward their dads and it hit," said Cima. "(The emotion) came out of nowhere. And I thought why didn't we have (an SOS program) when I went through this."
At a recent SOS function Kirby and Augustus' children ran circles around U.S. Army Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Hector Prince. He smiled, laughed along with the young children and then asked the hard questions.
"How are you doing in school' Are you listening to your mother'"
Support from command is an essential tool for the success of the SOS program, said Cima and Smith. Prince agreed.
"It shows the families that we care and that they are still a part of our community," said Prince. "Their Soldiers are our heroes, too."
Kirby and Augustus have been active participants in the local SOS program. The two women and their children recently participated in the Snowball Express - a function in Dallas, Texas, offered to surviving military families and their children. And in January, Kirby and Augustus helped to prepare a lunch for Soldiers at the Wiesbaden Warrior Transition Unit (a facility which provides personal support to wounded Soldiers).
"We decided to have lunch for you guys today," Kirby said as she swayed with her 7-year-old daughter, "because you are heroes, and you're suffering just like us."
For more information on the Wiesbaden area SOS program, call Wiesbaden Army Community Service at mil 335-5254 or civ (0611) 4080-254. For information on Baumholder's Warrior Transition Unit call mil 485-8538 or civ (06783) 6-8538.