By Sgt. 1st Class Mark BellDecember 11, 2010
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- A nearby tree was lit up with colorful lights, presents were carefully placed underneath the green pine needles and laughter filled the atrium of the 81st Regional Support Command headquarters building during a holiday event Dec. 11.
Instead of exchanging gifts, several dozen family members at the second annual Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) holiday gathering shared memories of their beloved Soldiers who have died.
Sponsored by the Army Reserve's SOS coordinators, and hosted by Maj. Gen. Bill Gerety, the Wildcat's commanding general, Gold Star Families from the Army, Army Reserve and the South Carolina Army National Guard gathered here to remember their loved ones and to share their personal triumphs and defeats of losing an integral part of their family.
"It's an honor to be here with you today," Gerety told the families during a small ceremony. "I want each of you to know that the Army does care and has not forgotten you or your loved ones who have given the ultimate sacrifice."
From Myrtle Beach to Greenville, families arrived from all corners of South Carolina to spend nearly four hours celebrating and remembering those who will be absent during the upcoming holiday season.
Army Reserve SOS coordinator Megan McCullough said one of the key points of the event was to bring survivors together during the holiday season.
"We want them to be around others who know what they are going through," she said. "The number one thing we want them to know is that each person here understands they are never, not part of the Army family."
McCullough said she hopes each survivor understands that the Army is here for him or her as long as he or she desires and that he or she is never alone.
Susannah Preacher, 18, from Greenville, S.C., lost her brother Sgt. Matthew Preacher Jan. 26, 2009. Spending her second holiday season without him is difficult, but attending events like the holiday gathering helps her connect with others in her same situation.
"To know what I have been through it, it helps me because I know others have been through it," Preacher said. "I can go enjoy myself with other people and not worry about my brother's death for just a moment."
Preacher came to the gathering with her sister, Elisabeth Preacher, 22, and her mother Rebecca Hopper to connect with other surviving families in South Carolina.
Preacher said one thing she has learned during the past two years is that the Army does care about the families left behind.
"I think the Army really cares about their Soldiers who have passed away and go the extra effort to help their families left behind," she said. "I really like events like this because my sister and I are able to meet other people our age that may have lost someone too."
Taking care of the Army family has always been a number one priority for the Fort Jackson garrison commander's wife, Leslie Love.
Love spent several hours talking with wives, husbands, brothers, sisters and loved ones of fallen Soldiers during the gathering.
Love's husband, Col. James Love, commanded the 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment as they served a combat tour in Iraq from 2005 to 2006.
"These families will always be a part of my family," she said. "They have, and will continue to give the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I could never imagine or understand their pain, but I am humbled by their spirit to move forward."
Love said that, during her husband's deployment to Iraq more than five years ago, she still remembers the pain and suffering on each of the widow's faces after they received the unexpected knock upon the door by a casualty notification team.
"I will never forget those ladies," she said. "They are the true American heroes today and I still keep in contact with many of them and call them my friends today."
From the combat operations in Iraq to the day-to-day business of taking care of young Soldiers on Fort Jackson, Love said the Army is an amazing organization that never ceases to open her eyes each day to a brighter future.
"We must honor and support these Gold Star Families," she said. "They deserve to shine in a time of sadness. It doesn't matter if they are Active (Duty), Army Reserve or Army National Guard, they all wear the American flag on their right shoulder, which stands for a freedom others dream to have."