REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Tears still come to her eyes when Keil Oliver remembers the military friends she has lost in the Global War on Terrorism and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Oliver graduated from a private military college in Vermont, and she and her husband both served in the Navy. Now an employee of the Missile Defense Agency, Oliver is physically far removed from the battlefield, but her loss is still close to heart.
So close, in fact, that she shared her feelings with members of her LIFT team and asked them to choose Army Community Service's Survivor Outreach Services as their class project. LIFT refers to AMCOM's Leader Investment for Tomorrow program. During the 11-month training program, participants are divided into teams charged with developing a project that will benefit Team Redstone, AMCOM and its employees.
Somehow, Oliver hoped her team would find a way to help the families of fallen service members.
"I lost 10 friends in the various wars," she said.
"My husband also deployed to Afghanistan and he lost a significant amount of his team there. At the funeral of those folks, you see the families fall to their knees and it hits you pretty hard. A friend of mine's mother still nine years later grieves for her son. Losing a son or daughter to war is a legacy that endures."
But unless there is an association with Survivor Outreach Services and the families it serves, most people don't know what it means when a family member of a fallen service member wears a Gold Star lapel pin or a Next of Kin lapel pin. They don't know that a Gold Star family is a family that has lost a service member in a time of war. They don't know about the culture and symbolism that surrounds a Gold Star family, the Gold Star service flag or the Gold Star family license plate. When the LIFT team surveyed Team Redstone employees on their own, many who they asked didn't know what Gold Star represented.
"If we don't know about it, how many others don't know about it? Gold Star families don't ask for a lot. They don't ask for recognition or tributes or songs. All they want is for us to remember their fallen service member and that their fallen service member served this country. They want people to remember," Oliver said.
There are 280 family members of fallen service members who participate in Redstone SOS program. They live in the 11-county area surrounding Redstone.
"They are among us. These families are here and we should know them," said LIFT team member Edwina Chilton of the AMCOM G-4.
Oliver, Chilton and their LIFT classmates decided to try to increase awareness by choosing a class project that will inform the Redstone community about the significance of the Gold Star. Oliver and Chilton's LIFT team -- which includes Dorphelia Foster of the Army Contracting Command, Leah Cook of the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, Waldemar Ramirez of the AMCOM's Security Assistance Management Directorate and Lisa Hirschler of the AMCOM Logistics Center -- decided to develop a Gold Star/SOS poster for distribution throughout Redstone tenants that explains the significance of the Gold Star and that brings awareness to Survivor Outreach Services.
"When we started looking at the projects we could do we were charged to go out and find different projects that would be worthwhile," Chilton said.
"We knew about Keil's personal experience, and we knew a LIFT team in 2013 did a Gold Star luncheon. After evaluating different project ideas, we decided we wanted to work with SOS. We wanted to build on what last year's LIFT team did by finding a way to tell the Gold Star story to increase awareness. We wanted to extend the reach of SOS."
The LIFT team decided increasing such awareness among Team Redstone employees was particularly important as the work of those employees affects Soldiers on the battlefield.
"We serve the military in our work, but a lot of us are far removed from the front line Soldiers and we don't have direct contact with Soldiers," Cook said.
"The biggest thing for us is to increase awareness of service members and, especially, the families of fallen service members. People don't recognize Gold Star pins and they don't recognize Gold Star families when they wear the pins."
"We wanted to remind everyone why we're here every day," Hirschler added.
"Can you recognize the families of fallen heroes?" are the words that spread across the top of the poster. Images of the Gold Star lapel pin and Next of Kin lapel pin along with a Gold Star service flag and family license plate are on the poster. So, too, is contact information on Redstone's SOS.
Besides developing a poster to explain the Gold Star pin and the culture behind it, the LIFT team also wanted to increase awareness of Survivor Outreach Services through its Facebook page and, through that awareness, increase the number of volunteers supporting the program. So, they put a link -- QR Code -- to the Redstone SOS Facebook page on the poster.
"Can you recognize a Gold Star family? Do you know what it means to be a Gold Star family or what those symbols mean? That's what we hope comes across with our poster as we work to grow awareness," Chilton said.
By using the poster to increase Facebook "Likes," the LIFT team is also building an easily accessible database of Redstone SOS "Friends" who will receive information about the program, its members and its activities. Through Facebook, SOS "Friends" will learn about volunteer opportunities.
"This will provide a sustainable way to find volunteers," Cook said. "Right now, most of the SOS volunteers come from the Space and Missile Defense Command. Other commands don't have that volunteer connection with SOS. We want to help make that connection."
SOS Facebook "Friends" will also be able to see photos of Gold Star families and learn about the family events SOS sponsors for them.
"We want the Facebook 'Friends' to be able to recognize our Gold Star families. The Gold Star symbol is seen on pins and license plates, and we want Team Redstone employees to be able to see that symbol and know what it means," Chilton said.
The LIFT team is hoping that familiarity with the Gold Star pin will help Redstone employees know how to approach those they see in public wearing the pin.
"We've heard of people seeing the pin and saying 'Oh, nice pin. How'd you get that?' It can be hard for a family to answer those kinds of questions. Instead of questions like that, we want people to see the pin and then tell the family 'I'm here for you if you need me. I want to show my support to you for your loss,'" Oliver said.
With the help of the Sparkman Management Office, the LIFT team is now putting their Gold Star/SOS posters up throughout the Sparkman Center complex to reach AMCOM employees. They are also going up at the Space and Missile Defense Command, and at other commands. Those commands that want copies of the poster for distribution or that want access to print additional copies of the poster for distribution, should call Hirschler at 876-8117.
"As with most projects, we did face challenges in getting the poster designed and published," Chilton said.
Funding for the project, and ensuring the messaging was approved by Redstone SOS and Garrison Public Affairs were aspects of the project that the LIFT team had to work through.
"It was a real positive learning experience for all of us," Hirschler said.
"But now we are looking for more places to put the posters and for commands that would like to make copies of the poster for their employees," Cook added.
The LIFT team also wants to see the Facebook link placed on internal Redstone websites.
Even without the poster in full distribution yet, the LIFT team has had an impact on increasing SOS and Gold Star awareness. Since they began working on the project a few months ago, they have contacted their friends and co-workers, and have asked them to "Like" the Redstone SOS Facebook page and to pass the word about the page to their contacts on Facebook. Because of those efforts, Facebook "Likes" on the Redstone SOS page have already increased by more than 100 percent, going from about 149 this past summer to more than 425 today.
"This project is so well-aligned with Army values that it's easy to talk about and to share," Chilton said.
The LIFT team will present their project and its end results to AMCOM leadership Nov. 17.
Besides making a difference for Redstone's SOS and Gold Star families, the LIFT team also learned from their project about group dynamics and the processes involved in getting things communicated to Redstone employees.
"We learned about leadership styles and how to work in our group, and about challenges that we faced in getting this project done," Cook said.
"We also saw how the actions we were taking impacted others," Oliver said.