COLUMBUS, Ga. -- Blue and silver ornaments adorned the balusters of the stairs leading up to second story. On the ground floor of the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts lobby here Dec. 7, beneath a towering Christmas tree, children sat on Santa and Mrs. Claus's laps while a parent or relative took a picture.
Families donned holiday apparel to attend Fort Benning Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) program's annual holiday party. Children participated in a tree decoration station and made holiday masks.
This Gold Star event is for those Families who lost a member -- a child, sibling, parent or spouse -- who was serving with the U.S. military.
"This event is really just to get together at the end of the year and celebrate the Families during the holiday time," said Alonzo Stewart, who oversees Fort Benning's SOS program. "It's really not a big formal event, but it's allowing us to get together, the leadership on Fort Benning, the garrison leadership, and us just to show our support at the end of the year."
Fort Benning's SOS directly serves 662 Family members and about 300 households over a geographic area that includes 22 counties in Georgia and three counties in Alabama. Stewart considers the program's purpose to be long-term care.
"What that long-term care means to the Family is what they want it to mean," said Stewart. "Whether they just need us to help assist them with looking over mortgage paperwork, or just come to the office if they need to sit down and talk, or if they need us to assist them with getting them to grief counseling.
Col. Matthew Scalia, the Fort Benning garrison commander, Fort Benning Command Sgt. Maj. Connie Rounds, and Maj. Timothy Fary, the Fort Benning Family life chaplain, attended the breakfast. Scalia thanked the Families for being at the event, telling them that the garrison benefits from their involvement in the program.
"We are enriched by the time we spend with you," he said.
Lisa Jenkins, is the president of the Georgia chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, attended the event with her husband Fred Jenkins II. Their son, Fred Jenkins III joined the Army in 2012, became an information technology specialist, and trained at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and Fort Gordon, Georgia. While serving with 725th Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska in 2015, he died in a motorcycle accident. The Jenkins have been involved with Survivor Outreach Services since.
"If you need a mentor, if you need someone to turn to, someone just to talk to, there are other members within the SOS that are affiliated that can help you through a lot of the times," said Lisa Jenkins. "And these events that they have, it helps. Because this is a tough time for us, during the holidays. So having something like this when we're together means a lot."
"You don't want to be a part of it, but I'm glad we are a part of this, because they do so much for us to feel heard, appreciated," said Fred Jenkins. "And they understand that we lost a loved one, and they're here for us, for either a pat on the back, a rub on the shoulder, a hug, a handshake, whatever we need."
Beyond the comfort and practical aid the SOS has provided the Jenkins, they have also found a community to be part of, the members of which have a better understanding of the trauma they endured.
"You know, our Family, they love our son," said Jenkins. "But within the Gold Star community, we find others that know -- really know -- what we're going through and the loss, so we can appreciate it."
To learn more about Fort Benning Survivor Outreach Services, visit https://benning.armymwr.com/programs/survivor-outreach-services.