The way they lost their loved ones was as different as the loved ones lost. For one, it was a husband in combat; for another, a daughter in a work-related accident. A third lost a son to combat while a fourth lost a son to a non-combat-related accident. Despite their differences, everyone attending the survivor's outreach program had one thing in common: they are not alone.
"It will be four years in June," said Lee Cordner, whose son, Cpl. William Long, was killed in Baquba, Iraq, while serving with the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division. "You never get over it, but if you have a big support system - family and friends - it helps."
With so many families having sacrificed so much, the Army created the Survivor Outreach Program to give survivors a larger support system. "It's about coming together to cope with losses," said Lidell Simpson, family advocacy program trainer with Army Community Service. "We're here to form relationships. It is therapy."
Forming relationships within the military community and finding others who understand her loss have been very therapeutic for Diane Bolling, who lost her daughter Spc. Crystal Bolling, in a June 11, 2007, accident while preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne.
While ground guiding a fellow Soldier driving a truck, Crystal, an ammunition specialist, was struck by the truck, becoming trapped between it and another vehicle.
"She was only 23. You're not supposed to have your kids die before you," Diane said. Still, she holds nothing against the Soldier driving the vehicle that struck her daughter, adding she has met with him on several occasions.
"When I met him, he said he knows what it is like to lose a child, yet at the same time he does not know," she said, explaining the Soldier's spouse had suffered two previous miscarriages.
In their shared grief, the two bonded, as Diane did with the rest of Crystal's unit. "I still talk with the leadership up there, go there a lot," she said. "I always know someone up there and send them packages (when they deploy). Everyone has been very supportive."
Even for survivors who don't stay in as close touch as Crystal's unit does with her mother, there is always a casualty assistance officer assigned to the survivors, said Kyla Alexander, a casualty and mortuary specialist with the Casualty Office of the U.S. Army Garrison's Directorate of Human Resources.
Alexander said casualty assistance officers are all senior Soldiers, sergeant first class and above in the enlisted branch or captain and above for officers. All casualty assistance officers are trained to handle the job and work closely with case managers.
"We work with the family to meet their wishes," Alexander said.
Casualty assistance officers are assigned to a case based on the Family's needs rather than rank. Because of this, an enlisted private's family might receive assistance from a senior officer, or an officer's might receive assistance from a senior enlisted Soldier.
"It's all about who is best suited to work with the family," Alexander said.
Cordner said he is very pleased with his casualty assistance officer. He said the assistance officer's professionalism brings back memories of some of the reasons his son enjoyed the military.
"He liked military; he did well at it. He enjoyed the precision and the adventure," Conner said, describing how, in the military, his son conquered his fear of heights by becoming a paratrooper.
It also brings back Cordner's memories of his son's prior duty as an honor guard member in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where he is now buried.
"They have a plaque dedicated to him there," Conner said, noting he also has a memorial tree planted at Fort Stewart on Warrrior's Walk, where all fallen 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers receive a memorial tree dedicated to them.
Although the loss of a loved one can never be replaced, by offering survivors hope, a community to share their feelings and stories with those in similar situations, the Army is doing its best to be a family in times of need. This includes introducing survivors to agencies, such as TRICARE, the chaplains office and casualty assistance office staffs, that can help them, Lidell said.
The group meets quarterly from 10 until 11:30 a.m. in classroom 206 of Bldg. 62 on Fort McPherson. Future meeting dates are June 15, Sept. 15 and Dec. 14. Times and locations remain the same for each event.
"We are all one family," Alexander said. "We take care of each other."