By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneJanuary 14, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Emily McFall's life has led her to this moment.
Standing among friends, supporters, well-wishers, and Army and community leaders, McFall could smile knowing she had completed a major milestone in a new Army initiative at Redstone Arsenal.
McFall is the Arsenal's coordinator of Survivor Outreach Services, known popularly as SOS. It is a program focused on providing a safe and homey haven for the Gold Star families of fallen Soldiers, and offering them the support, counseling and encouragement to continue on after their devastating loss.
On Jan. 6, McFall welcomed the community to the Arsenal's new SOS facility, adjacent to Army Community Service, building 3338 on Redeye Road. Taking on the role of hostess, she showed off a place that features a sitting area, children's play area, a multipurpose area for gatherings and an administrative office. Everywhere they looked, visitors saw the personal touches that McFall has added to make the facility a home away from home, a place for fun and relaxation, a place to both play and seek comfort.
Comfy couches are snug in one area of the room. Scenes from Shel Silverstein's well-known book "The Giving Tree" painted on the wall shelter the children's play area. There are plenty of tables and chairs for doing family projects - scrapbooking and crafts - as well as a flat-screen television for those family members preferring video entertainment. Scattered on the walls are sayings of comfort and hope - such as "Remember to cherish each moment because this is what memories are made of" and "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."
"It's come a long way. It's a good place for our survivors to come to and meet each other," McFall said. "We wanted to give them a safe place where they can come and talk about their Soldier, their families and themselves. We want them to feel at home here, whether they want to talk about the past or their future."
This time last year, the SOS facility at Redstone was a dream in the making. Across the Army, Installation Management Command commander Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch was calling for garrisons to stand up facilities in support of fallen Soldier survivors as required by the 2008 guidance mandating an Armywide SOS program designed to provide dedicated and comprehensive support to survivors of deceased Soldiers from all military branches. The program was established under the Army Family Action Plan.
In a short time, Family and Morale Welfare and Recreation and its Army Community Service tapped the right person with the passion and knowledge to see the Arsenal's SOS through fruition - and that person was McFall. When Lynch visited Redstone's Garrison last February, he met with McFall and other family survivors. Work on Redstone's SOS facility began shortly after that. While McFall laid the foundation of the Arsenal's SOS program, and worked to locate and reach out to family members, construction workers converted ACS warehouse space into the new SOS facility. During the fall of 2010, McFall began coordinating new SOS events and activities while also ordering furniture and decorating the new SOS home.
So, with the official opening of the Arsenal's SOS, McFall has seen the program come into its own moment as she herself has found her place to give back.
In SOS circles, McFall is unique. While most SOS programs are coordinated by professional counselors, McFall's credentials are found in the sacrifices she has made along her own personal life journey.
A former Soldier herself, McFall was married to a Soldier - Staff Sgt. Thomas McFall. The couple was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., where McFall was raising their three children while her husband was deployed in Baghdad, Iraq, with the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (one of two Stryker Brigade Combat Teams). On May 28, 2007, McFall's journey took a turn into loss and sorrow when her 36-year-old husband died of wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near his position during a dismounted patrol. At the time of his death, McFall's husband was serving under Lynch's command.
As she raises their children on her own, McFall finds comfort in providing love and support to other family members of fallen Soldiers. She welcomes visitors to a place where her own husband's picture is among other Soldiers whose framed photos grace the Hall of Remembrance that leads into the Arsenal's SOS facility. She spends her part-time work days making sure visitors get the support they need.
"This is a place where our family members can come to be together and talk one-on-one. They can come here knowing they are not alone, and knowing they can share their feelings and emotions without having to justify them," McFall said.
"They can come here knowing that their feelings are real. Just because a month or two or more have passed, doesn't mean their pain is any less. We understand here that you never get over it, you just get through it."
There are big plans for the SOS facility. SOS reaches out well beyond the Redstone and Huntsville communities to include families in the following 11 North Alabama counties: Lauderdale, Colbert, Franklin, Limestone, Lawrence, Madison, Morgan, Cullman, Jackson, Marshal and DeKalb. Within that area, SOS has identified the loss of 87 fallen Soldiers affecting about 185 family members.
Now, the SOS facility is the regular Monday morning meeting place for the My Soldier, My Fallen Hero widow support group. Plans are to add sibling and parent support groups. There are various activities, including scrapbooking gatherings where family members can build scrapbook pages with the pictures of Soldier, and pizza parties and social gatherings for families. There is space for children to play and hang out (including a playground still under construction) while their parents get free services provided by ACS, such as financial, legal and family counseling.
During the weekend of Feb. 4-6, SOS will be bringing the TAPS Survivor Seminar and its sister program of Good Grief Camp for children to Redstone. The program will attract survivor families from throughout the Southeast. Both the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army and the Sergeants Major Association are sponsors of the program.
And that's just the beginning for McFall and Redstone Arsenal SOS.
"This is all about making friends and finding your support group after you've lost your Soldier," McFall said. "It's about making connections with people who have gone through the same things you've gone through, and with people who can help your life go forward. This is about having a place where you can really relax, have a cup of coffee, share your story and renew your life."
For more information or to make donations to the program, call 842-8375 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.