By Andy Massanet, Fort Riley Public AffairsAugust 18, 2017
FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Randy Frank, husband of Gold Star mother Keeley Frank, reflected on the loss of Keeley's son, Sgt. Kevin A. Gilbertson of the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Aug. 4, a decade after his death. Gilbertson died Aug. 31, 2007 from wounds sustained at the hands of enemy forces in Ramadi, Iraq.
"Once that service member joins (the Army), the whole family joins," Randy said.
Keeley grieved alone over the loss of her son for eight years.
"I loved him," Keeley said. "We were close and when it came to high school time, he asked me, 'mom, can I go into the service?'"
Military recruiters had been coming to Gilbertson's high school and he became interested, Keeley said. In Gilbertson's case there was the buddy system through which friends could go into the Army together, but the friend Gilbertson signed with decided not to join. He enlisted on his own anyway.
"He loved it," Keeley said. "From day one, especially all the exercise, lifting weights, that is what he really liked the most. But he didn't tell me a lot of what he did there (in the Army). He did tell his stepfather -- he passed away in 2005. They talked a lot so Kevin probably told him things."
Gilbertson would come home to rest. At times he'd bring home Army friends.
"He didn't want (to) have anything to do with uniforms or nothing," Keeley said.
After Gilbertson's death, support from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, community -- where she lived, where Gilbertson was born and raised, where he joined the Army and where he was laid to rest -- was limited, Keeley said.
"When I was in Cedar Rapids I didn't get any kind of support," Keeley said. "The only kind of support they had was they wanted me to get on the Internet, and I didn't want to do Internet. I really didn't have nobody, because nobody knew how to handle my situation."
Even the few relatives available to Keeley -- a sister and a nephew -- struggled to help her.
"They really didn't know how to help me or understand what I was going through," Keeley said. "My sister and I lost our dad and our mom, but that's completely different than losing a child. I was pretty much on my own 'til I met him (Randy Frank). Then everything turned around."
When Keeley met Randy he was a certified emergency manager in Iowa. He is also an Army veteran who served as a fire support specialist.
Today, Randy is the commander of the District IV, Kansas American Legion, which includes Fort Riley, but he was similarly active in veterans' affairs in Iowa. While organizing an event they met, grew close and eventually married. But Randy knew
Keeley was hurting and wanted to help her.
"I knew she needed closure," he said. "I knew that Kevin was a 1st ID Soldier and I needed to get her back up here because in my experience in the Army I knew we took care of our own."
In 2015, Randy got a job in Kansas and the Franks moved to Hillsboro, Kansas.
DEALING WITH LOSS IS A PERSONAL JOURNEY
Survivor Outreach Services -- which is Army-wide and has a branch at Fort Riley -- offers a variety of services and support for families who have lost loved ones while serving their country.
"There are so many people affected by the death of a Soldier: spouses, children, brothers and sisters, grandparents and aunts," said Christina Gary, the SOS coordinator at Fort Riley since 2009. "You have to take that into account. Everybody's needs are different, everybody's grief is different."
Soldiers are aware of the need to be there for one another, to look out for each other.
"I had a very high regard for Kevin Gilbertson," said Maj. Nathan Strickland, executive officer of the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.
This unit has adopted the Franks as its Gold Star family.
"His assigned position was gunner and he was probably the best gunner in the platoon, not just for technical skills, but also for all-around junior-level leadership," Strickland said. "He was a guy who if you had something that really needed to be done and it couldn't get screwed up, then Kevin was one of those guys you could say, 'hey, I need to get this done,' and he would."
An operational tank requires four Soldiers to perform, the tank commander, gunner, loader and driver. In the case of Gilbertson's team, "the whole was greater than the sum of the parts," Strickland said. "Kevin was always outspoken and willing to express himself. He was very well-liked."
Even in the strongest of units, the death of a teammate is difficult.
"It's a hard to thing to bounce back from," Strickland said. "It rattles everyone badly. It hurts the platoon because they are all so tight."
As for the importance of SOS, Strickland said, "it (SOS) is very important in setting the context for these events (death of a Soldier). There are so many circumstances, and these things tend to happen so quickly, with so many variables around them that the families often only know the result of these actions and they don't know what their loved one was actually doing and what the teammates were actually doing."
Strickland added this uncertainty leads to families not knowing how the Army regards them now that the Soldier has been lost.
"I think that SOS helps them process through some of that ambiguity so they can find their own meaning out of these events," he said. "The Soldiers lean on each other and know when something is bothering one of them, whereas parents might not have that."
For all that is available for Soldiers -- and, whether they take advantage of the support the Army makes available is up to them -- the families have a more challenging row to hoe. And the reason, as Gary said, is that grief over the loss of a Soldier "is a personal journey."
Gary said families who lose a Soldier go through feelings of isolation from the community they are part of, but with a significant difference: "They often think that, since their Soldier is gone, they are no longer part of the Army."
Overcoming that doubt requires work that establishes trust, Gary said.
"There's a lot of trust-building that takes place here (at SOS)," she said. "You just can't pick up the phone and say 'oh hey, come on down, let's get involved.' They (those who are grieving) aren't really that open. So you have to establish a relationship with them, in order to get them to move out of that closed space that they're in. Then they can get more involved because the more involved that they are, the more connected they feel, they feel like their Soldier's not forgotten and they're not forgotten. And that's really what we're here for."
The 'closed space" Gary refers to speaks of the tendency for people who are grieving to remain apart and isolated from those who might help them.
REJOINING THE COMMUNITY
Once in Kansas, the Franks began to come to Fort Riley to participate in events intended for Gold Star families. But it all began with an invitation.
"One of the first major outreaches to Keeley was from (Brig.) Gen. Frank," Randy said.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Frank (no relation) was, at the time, the deputy commanding general for maneuver for the Big Red One. He eventually became the 1st Inf. Div. acting senior commander while Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin and the Division headquarters deployed to Iraq from 2016 to 2017.
"He sent her an invitation to an event," Randy said. "I can't remember what the event was but it was up there near the 1st ID headquarters, where the stones are located (Victory Park). He was very good to us. He's a wonderful Soldier. He took the time to step away from the dignitaries to speak to Keeley, which really impressed me. Then later, his wife did the same thing. Without knowing anything about her (Keeley), they both sat at a picnic table, just the two of them, for about 45 minutes talking about whatever."
Gary said talking to survivors of a Soldier in combat is not easy, adding that death is usually a topic avoided.
"I've talked to senior leaders who are unsure how to talk to a person who has lost a Soldier," Gary said. "They might say 'I'm so sorry for your loss,' when what the grieving person really wants to know if they are still welcome."
There are many military families out there who have not reached out to the Army for support, Gary said, and Randy agrees.
"We're not the only Gold Star Family that needs closure," he said. "There are many others out there who need it, but you have to reach the point where you feel you need that closure, and then you can reach out for it."
For more information about Fort Riley Survivor Outreach Services, call 785-239-9435.