By Rachel Ponder, APG NewsApril 17, 2012
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Loved ones of Fallen Soldiers have a place to go for support. APG's Survivor Outreach Services connects survivors with professionals who can provide guidance, information and assistance.
SOS is a holistic and multiagency approach to delivering services by providing access at communities closest to where Families live. SOS came to APG in 2009 and serves Families in Harford, Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne's, Talbot and Dorchester counties. The program links survivors with grief counselors, financial counselors, benefit coordinators and more.
"The program is very handson," said SOS coordinator Annette Sanders. "Counselors will even make home visits, at the request of the survivor."
Sanders, who has a bachelor's degree in social work, works closely with Casualty Assistance Officers, who initially notify the immediate Family of their Soldier's death, help with funeral arrangements and answer questions about entitlements and benefits.
Sanders said SOS provides expanded support and care after casualty assistance ends. The
program offers assistance to survivors as far back as World War II, and does not limit how long services are rendered.
"Everyone grieves on their own time schedule and in their own way," said Sanders "A loss is still a loss, no matter when a Soldier dies."
Services are provided to all survivors. Spouses, children, parents, siblings and friends who are grieving the loss of a Soldier are eligible to receive services, regardless of how the Soldier died. All Army active duty, National Guard, Reserve component and other military branch survivors are eligible for SOS services. The Army is the only military branch with a dedicated program for survivors.
Sanders said one of missions of SOS is to reassure survivors that they remain part of the Army Family for as long as they desire.
"For some survivors, Army life is all they know," she said. "They feel at home on Army installations. This is their comfort zone and they want to continue to participate in Army events."
Through the Directorate of Emergency Services, SOS helps drivers obtain SOS vehicle identification decals and SOS identification cards for non-Department of Defense cardholders.
Another facet of SOS is its support groups. It facilitates a gathering for survivors once a month. The group discusses issues that affect them, like changes in government initiatives for Families of
"I call it a meet-up because it's not just a grief session, although we do talk about grief, if We need to," Sanders said. "The group exists so survivors can find a network of friends that are going through the same thing. We also do fun activities together."
APG will host a breakfast for Families of Fallen Soldiers prior to the annual Armed Forces Day festivities in May. Attendees can RSVP to Sanders at 410- 278-2861. SOS is also planning a trip to Washington, D.C., to view the Fourth of July fireworks.
The next SOS meeting is April 19 from 6 - 7:30 p.m. Attendees will plan activities for summer. Light refreshments will be served. Child care is provided by Child Youth and School Services with
two week's notice.
"I hope to continue to see more Family members of Fallen Soldiers," Sanders said. "This is a way for them to keep their loved one's memories alive, and meet others going through like experiences" she said.
Survivors speak out
Danielle Charles, who lost her husband Jan. 14, 2011, one month after the birth of their second child, said the SOS program saved her life. With no local support from extended family, Charles
said she was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
"I was always taught that the military was a Family that took care of its own but as a surviving spouse, I felt like our Family became instant outcasts,"
Charles said. "I actually became so withdrawn that any document pertaining to my husband or the military went into a pile that I did not touch for months." Charles said her turning point was
linking up with SOS' Sanders, who guided her and her Family to counseling and provided assistance with the documents.
"Ms. Sanders has helped me come around people again at a time when I had secluded myself and my children from everyone," she said. "I am so happy that this program is here for me and spouses like myself who are experiencing a loss. It is such a blessing, knowing that a program
like this is here to ensure that for me, a military wife whose husband died while serving, is not an outcast."
Charles said SOS has renewed her belief in the military, and "showed me that the Charles Family has a country and a military that still cares."
Tonya Armstead, who lost her husband in 2005 while he was serving in Afghanistan, said she wished she had a program like SOS after her husband's death. Like Charles, Armstead had young children that depended on her and had no local Family support.
"After I lost my husband, I wasn't sure who I could trust," Armstead said. "Some people tried to take advantage of my situation, and some people gave me false information. The SOS program is
a place that survivors can go to get information they can trust."
Armstead added that like Charles, after her husband died she felt too grief stricken to deal with many tasks.
"Unfortunately, I also lost out on some benefits," she said. "But when you lose a spouse, you are grieving. You do not want to spend time researching what benefits are available. Filling out paper work can be so overwhelming and stressful."
Today she says tries to attend all SOS meetings to offer support to other survivors, most of whom have lost spouses within the past year.
"Hopefully they can learn from my experiences," she said.
APG's SOS is in the process of standing up a Gold Star Wives chapter, which will be a part of a national association of Gold Star Wives. The APG SOS, which is offered through Army Community
Services, also partners with Gold Star Mothers.
To find out more about SOS, contact Sanders at 410-278-2861 or casandra.a.sanders-nash.civ.@mail.mil.