WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 28, 2010) -- Nickayla Myers-Garner and her husband Capt. Mark Garner discussed his final wishes before he deployed to Afghanistan ... wishes she hoped she'd never have to carry out.

But on July 6, 2009, Mark was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near his convoy in the Agrandab District of Afghanistan.

"Mark planned his funeral, I only implemented it at a time when I was so stressed out that it was hard to even think straight," Myers-Garner said, now thankful that he had left such detailed instructions. "I'm lucky I had that ... it was a gift Mark gave me."

Myers-Garner explained during a Family Forum on military survivors at the 2010 Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, that discussing final arrangements with loved ones is an uncomfortable but necessary task to carry out before deployments. She said that without her husband's directions, she would have been overwhelmed during her time of mourning.

"I know exactly what Mark Garner wanted for my life. We need to help our family members and our Soldiers prepare for the unthinkable, because frankly, for all of us, death is inevitable," she said, stressing preparedness.

However, Myers-Garner pointed out that due to Army policy, she had to pack up her belongings and move off of base housing in Germany within 90 days of her husband's death -- a period she says is too short for a person in mourning.

Myers-Garner and other spouses, parents and siblings had the chance to address senior leaders at the forum about their experiences of loss and give suggestions on how to improve current programs.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and his wife Shelia took questions from survivors and listened to their concerns.

"If you haven't been through it, you don't get it," said Casey, whose father was killed in Vietnam. "You need to know that your loved one's sacrifice is recognized and appreciated."

Survivor Outreach Services, created in 2008, was designed to embrace the families of fallen Soldiers. As an Army Community Service program, the goal of SOS is to provide short and long-term support to the survivors of Soldiers who die while on active duty. Prior to the inception of SOS, some families said they felt isolated and unsupported by the Army.

Issues raised included financial confusion, unfamiliarity with military procedures, housing and the legalities of being a beneficiary.

"Grieving is a very individual process. You can't give a cookie-cutter solution for it," Casey said about survivor programs.

The answer, Casey said, is to have an array of services available should families wish to use them. SOS should also pursue survivors, never leave them feeling alone, yet understand when to back off, he said.

"Our journey as a mom and dad, we had no connection with any families who had ever lost a child, let alone one in war," said Deborah Tanish, whose son, Sgt. Patrick Tanish, was killed in Iraq in 2004.

"Prior to SOS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors kept our marriage together if not alive and gave us a new path to take," Tanish explained.

Tanish commended the Army for creating SOS and said she is glad that now families will have more help knowing where to turn in a time of crisis.

"A lot of parents are completely lost when it comes to the military ... they may not get followed up on as well as the spouses," another parent of a fallen Soldier added.

Prior to SOS, some survivors said that when their Soldier died, they felt as though they lost their Army family too.

An Army spouse whose husband committed suicide in 2007 said the unit she was so closely ingrained with while her husband was alive didn't reach out to her after his death -- because, she felt, they didn't know what to say.

"I have to applaud the military for all the suicide-prevention programs being put into place, but there needs to be more done," the woman said.

She added that once SOS was created, it became her lifeline.

Another survivor of suicide, Liz Sparks, the mother of Pfc. Cody Thompson who committed suicide in 2008, addressed Casey about the stigma of suicide that still lingers among the ranks.

"I want to help stop this suicide stigma, general, because it's still there," Sparks said.

Casey, and Maj. Gen. Reuben Jones, the commanding general of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, assured the survivors that this kind of critique is exactly what they want to hear in order to provide better care.

"This program is designed to embrace and reassure our survivors," Jones said. "That's what SOS is all about."

Jones said that when he meets with survivors, he tells them, "we will never, ever leave you behind."

He explained that survivors deserve a network of comprehensive support and compassionate case management, a goal the Army is striving to reach.

"We go where survivors go," he said. "We will search tirelessly to find assistance for those survivors."

One suggestion that will soon be implemented is specially-designed Army base vehicle decals for the surviving Families of fallen Soldiers. These will guarantee survivors have access to bases and never feel separated from the Army family.

Legacy books were another suggestion talked about. Some units are now requiring Soldiers to complete information on their final wishes prior to deployment and leave a copy with their families. Some survivors suggested this be mandatory for all Soldiers.

For more information on Survivors Outreach Services visit www.myarmyonesource.com and click on Family Programs and Services, then find 'Surviving Families.'