By Robyn Baer, Fort Sill CannoneerMay 29, 2009
Soldiers put their lives on the line every day, and some of them sacrifice it for their country.
But what happens to the families of fallen Soldiers' They become survivors.
Fort Sill takes the care of survivors seriously.
At the direction of the chief of staff of the Army, it formed the new Survivor Outreach Services, which became active May 1.
The mission of the SOS is to connect the family to the Army for as long as they desire, said Rob Hendricks, chief of casualty operations.
"It creates a multi-agency approach and standards of support that ensure the families have access to all their benefits and entitlements," he said.
The SOS includes agencies on post like the casualty and mortuary affairs operation center, Installation Management Command, Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, Army Community Services, garrison family life center, Child and Youth Services and legal. Everyone works together and shares information.
Members of the SOS also work with external agencies like Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration and local community agencies to help coordinate benefits for survivors.
Through the Army Family Covenant, survivors are provided additional services, including access to daycare and sports programs at Child and Youth Services, said Debra Leffler, SOS coordinator.
SOS also has the ability to serve family members of fallen Marines, sailors, airmen and coastguardsmen. They are entitled to the same benefits as fallen Soldiers.
"Any survivor of the fallen is entitled to use SOS parents, spouses, children, siblings, ID card holders from all branches of the military regardless of how far back it was and for as long as they request," Hendricks said.
When a casualty occurs, the process starts in the Casualty Assistance Center, he said. "We begin to process the information and share information with the family." Survivors first have contact with casualty assistance benefits officers, but later someone in the SOS will do an assessment of their needs.
"We sit down and assess their needs and coordinate any assistance or referral," Leffler said. She said the SOS also follows up with survivors and coordinates any after care. The SOS offers support groups for parents, spouses and children of the fallen. For those who do not want face-to-face interaction or are in an area remote to Fort Sill, the Army OneSource and Army Wellbeing Web sites also offer survivors the opportunity to chat with other survivors.
The main goal of SOS is to link survivors with services.
"We're here to close the gap," said Kathy Carnahan, the SOS financial counselor. "There were lots of people falling through the gap because they didn't know about the services. I think what we've been assembled to do is to inform them and tap them into the services that are available, to be there to assist them in whatever their goals or needs are. If they come and tell me that they need help in figuring out how to send their kids to college, then I have to tap them into the sources that can help them do that."
The SOS often assists survivors who need their taxes done, need grief counseling or need financial guidance.
The SOS isn't just for people who recently became survivors. The SOS helps survivors as often as they need throughout their lifetime. It doesn't matter if it's a recent death or if it's many years down the road, the SOS still tries to meet them with whatever their need is, Carnahan said.
"There's lots of decisions to be made, and under the circumstances at the time, their minds are very clouded with all the decisions that have to be made," she said. "That's why they often return later for assistance."
Often life changes affect the needs of family members. Remarriage, birth of other children and retirement often change the entitlements and needs of survivors.
"Ideally, we want to keep them for as long as they want," Hendricks said. "That's what we're here for, to provide services for as long as they want to be connected. They can come back tomorrow, one day, two days, four or five years, whenever, until they are comfortable severing that tie."
This approach to survivor care is a radical change from the way the Army has taken care of survivors in the past
In years past, whenever a Soldier died, the family had contact with Casualty Affairs, where their needs were seen to, and then they went their way, Hendricks said. "Now they can reach back to the SOS and say, 'Hey, I need this or I need that.' Before, the same programs were available to the families, but there was no central organization to guide them in the right direction."
As recently as the past few years, the concept was six months and then the Army's done with you, Carnahan said. "Survivor Outreach Services was put in place, I think, to give them long-term assistance. They make the decision of when it's over. It's not the Army making that decision for them, they're making the decision of when it's over, when they don't need us any longer."
For people remote to Fort Sill, SOS will contact the National Guard or Reserve units in that area so their needs can be met locally.
The Army is also establishing a national directory so that, not only if they're in a remote area, but if they leave the area they are in, they can have a contact where they're going.
"For instance, survivors have housing for 365 days, then they may choose to move back home. If there's not a military base there, we can say, 'Here is a resource for you.' We can let them know on the other end that Mrs. Jones is coming to see you," Leffler said.
"The bottom line is that we are going to take care of the family members as long as they need us," Hendricks said. "We are going to connect them to the military as long as they want us, and we'll try to offer them all of the services that are available to military families. What we really want them to know is, 'We're here for you; you can lean on us.'
"As long as there's somebody out there who needs us, we're going to jump on board and do what we can the best we can. We're going to do everything we possibly can for them. It is an honor to serve the survivors of fallen servicemembers."