By Sheryl Nix, Fort Wainwright PAOApril 29, 2010
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - The knock on the door followed by the devastating news that a loved one was killed; the barrage of strangers in and out of the home; the avoidance from friends and acquaintances and obvious averted glances in the commissary; these are all things that many surviving family members have experienced.
No one can truly understand what it is like to lose a husband, wife, son, daughter or other family member who was serving or had served in the military unless they have experienced that loss, said Michelle Benjamin, Fort Wainwright's Survivor Outreach Services support coordinator.
That is why local survivors have flocked to the SOS program to share their stories, find healing and make a difference in the lives of other Fort Wainwright families.
Through the local program, which officially began last December, Benjamin has regular contact with almost two dozen survivors ranging in age from 5 to 84 from the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy and National Guard and hopes to reach even more in the future.
Regardless of the branch of service and whether combat, suicide, an accident or illness took the lives of their loved ones, survivors share a common bond and Benjamin said survivors now have a way to build that bond and share their experiences through the monthly SOS support group meetings.
"They just like coming together," said Nisla Love, SOS financial counselor. "It's a safe environment for them." Love provides a wide range of practical services for survivor families from financial resources to help with basic budgeting, which is what most survivors have needed, she said.
Benjamin said the support groups have also become a practical part of the process of survivors healing and moving forward.
"The support group is a way for survivors to come together regularly to not just share their pain, but also focus on the positive things in their lives," Benjamin said. "Some months are good for people and some months are bad, but we try to balance the need to focus on the present, while still having the remembrance of the past. It's really a balance between the two. This is also a way we communicate regularly that they are still part of a family."
Another way survivors are reminded that they are part of the Army family is through their Soldiers' units. Commanders and units like 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division and 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Division, 1-25 SBCT have reached out to survivors whose Soldiers served in their units and asked them to be involved in events, programs and the lives of Soldiers and families.
Staff Sgt. Stephen Sutherland died in 2005 while deployed to Iraq with 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which is now 5-1st in 1-25 SBCT. His wife, Maria Sutherland, said she is determined to make the process better for those who lose military loved ones in the future. "It has been an ordeal and sometimes it doesn't feel like it has been almost five years," she said. Many from her husband's unit did not talk to or visit her after her husband's death. "It still really bothers me," she said.
While people often are unsure of what to say to someone who has lost a Soldier, Sutherland said that isolating a surviving family member at that point makes the loss even more painful.
"I think it should be our option for as long as we desire to be a part of the military," she said "For most of us, this is what we know. I was also active duty myself so it was kind of like being detached. Not only did I lose my husband, but I lost my Army family as well. I have no family here except my Army family and my church family so it hurts a lot that they put me to the side."
Things have changed since 2005 and thanks to support and encouragement from the SOS program and leaders like Maj. Gen William J. Troy, commanding general, U.S. Army Alaska, Col. Todd Wood, commander, 1-25th SBCT, and Lt. Col. Dave Raugh, commander, 5-1st, Sutherland said she is now an active part of her Army family again.
From attending the recent brigade ball to attending family readiness group meetings and heading up the squadron's Care Team during the next deployment, Sutherland is embracing the opportunity to stay connected and affect the lives of Soldiers and families in the future.
The SOS program is an important part of making things better for survivors in the future, she said. "Just the fact that we have somewhere to go to no matter what is huge. For me, once the casualty officer left I wanted to talk to someone and there wasn't anyone for me to talk to. We don't stop grieving just because the casualty officer left."
Sgt. Irving Hernandez, Jr. was killed by a sniper in 2006 in Iraq while deployed with 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 172nd SBCT, which is now 1-5th in 1-25 SBCT. His wife, Susan Hernandez, volunteers with the SOS program and said before the SOS program was here life was much different for her.
"It was hard. I didn't really have any communication with the base," she said. "I love that the Army has started this program. I see the work that Michelle and Nisla are doing and the efforts they put into it. I am grateful for what they do for us."
It is a new day for Hernandez who now not only volunteers with the SOS program, helping other survivors, but who, thanks to support from Lt. Col. Brian Payne, commander, 1-5th, is also a part of her husband's unit again.
"I try to look for different ways to accept and understand why I lost Irving. I do believe that God has His reasons for everything and something good will come out of this," she said. "I'm thankful that the Army finally realized that the surviving (family members) need this. For a long time I felt left out and I'm thankful that they're finally making us a part of something again."
The SOS program is not just for family members who have lost loved ones in combat; it is also for spouses like Lynda Goodwin, Child, Youth and School Services school liaison officer, whose husband, Air Force Master Sgt. James Goodwin, died in 2003 from a pulmonary embolism while stationed in Spain.
"I'm much more informed about things now," she said. "I have a connection with people I would never have met otherwise. It's kind of like a family."
Like other survivors, Goodwin has found healing in giving to others both personally and professionally. "As a school liaison officer, I get to help other military families," she said. "That's what I like. I get to help families. I get to help the schools. It gives me purpose."
Finding purpose in the midst of tragedy is the only option, said Laveda Napier, whose daughter, Sgt. Carletta S. Davis, was killed by an improvised explosive device while deployed to Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division in 2007.
Napier said her daughter made a difference in every life she encountered. "She was a peacemaker. She is missed. I miss her," she said.
Napier, whose home was recently destroyed by a fire, found refuge in the SOS program and even as she heals from wounds she received from saving her daughter's medals in the fire, she said that she is thankful.
The program has helped her know that "I'm not the only one. I'm not the only who has had a loss," she said. "I have a reason to be thankful. Even when bad things happen, there is something good."
The next SOS support group will be May 19. For more information about the SOS program, call 353-4004.