WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 12, 2011) -- The Army has come a long way when it comes to caring for gold star families, but it can do more, the chief of staff of the Army told survivors and other family members here Tuesday.

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno made the comments during a family forum at the Association of the United States Army annual meeting, assuring the audience that the issue is very personal to him.

"I've gotten to know many gold star family members, but my family has become specifically close to one who was involved when my son was injured and his driver was killed," Odierno said. "We have built a relationship with that family, not because I'm a general officer … but because there's a connection with our family … because my son who was severely injured feels fortunate that he's able to live his life, and he often (tells) me that he lives his life today for his driver.

"And I've looked at the sacrifices that family's made and what they've gone through, and … me and my wife want to make sure we're there and help them in any way we can. We feel that way about everybody."

Over the last few years, he noted, the Army has improved casualty assistance and made it more responsive. It has also developed more survivor outreach services, especially resources for children. Choice is also key.

"No one knows what a family wants except that family. What we can do is offer them choices, and what we're trying to do now is develop to where we can continue to improve having access, providing choices, so they can decide how they want to move forward," Odierno said, noting that the Army needs to improve how it works with private organizations such as the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, known as TAPS, and make sure survivors know about all of the options available.

It also needs to educate the public about the meaning of gold stars.

"I think the one thing that we're not doing a very good job of is ensuring every citizen understands what a gold star means, what a gold star family member is," he explained. "It symbolizes the costs of providing security to this country, of enabling us to stay free, to have a choice, and that there are many, many more people who give up their lives in order for us to remain and have these choices. During World War II, it was commonly seen, everyone understood what it was and what it symbolized. We need to restore that sense of honor."

According to Col. Deborah Skillman, a branch chief at the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, the general officer who meets a fallen Soldier at Dover Air Force Base, Del., is given small pins that feature a gold star on a purple background surrounded by gold leaves to distribute to eligible family members, usually at the Soldier's funeral. Parents (including stepparents, adoptive parents and foster parents), spouses, children and siblings are the only family members entitled to wear this pin. They are also the only individuals who have the right to hang gold star banners.

In addition, a second gold star pin known as the next-of-kin pin features four oak leaves. It signifies a family member was killed on duty during peacetime.

The Army and other services will also understand more about the grief gold star families endure after the Center of the Study of Traumatic Stress at Uniformed Services University completes the five-year, multipronged, longitudinal National Military Family Bereavement Study.

According to Drs. Steven Coza and Jill Harrington-LaMorie, many military families are quite young, and there are virtually no empirical studies in the United States that examine the impact of death on military families. Their study will include examining existing data on gold star families, questionnaires survivors can use to tell their stories, family interviews, and it will also include shadowing newly bereaved families and focus groups.

"When a Soldier joins the Army, we understand the sacrifice he's making," Odierno said. "We also understand what we are asking him to do. We could ask him to do things that are incredibly dangerous and sometimes it ends in death. Yet what we have to be able to do is keep that trust with the family, because you entrusted that son or daughter to us. What we have to do is live up to that trust even during the worst of times and help you through that, because you will always be part of our Army family."