I commanded the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Ga., as part of the surge in Iraq in 2007-08. During that time, 153 Soldiers died in combat in a place on the battlefield where I put them. I pray for those Soldiers and their families every day. Their loss is something I have to live with for the rest of my life. For any leader, the loss of a Soldier hits hard. But the loss that survivors experience is magnitudes deeper and wider because they have lost not just a Soldier, but a friend, a son or daughter, a husband or wife, a father or mother.
When I visit installations, I meet with those who have lost loved ones on active duty. I make sure to talk with survivors for two reasons. One reason is that now, as the commander of Installation Management Command, I need to know how we are doing with one of our newest programs, Survivor Outreach Services. The other reason is that survivors need to know that the Army recognizes and honors their Soldier's service and sacrifice.
The best, most meaningful thing we can do to honor our fallen Soldiers is to support and care for those they left behind. Survivor Outreach Services was established in April 2008 to do just that and in a more comprehensive manner than ever before.
The Army is fortunate to have a leader like Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who had the vision and compassion to propel the effort to support survivors beyond casualty assistance alone. Casualty assistance officers work with families during a very difficult time, a heart-rending time, when families are notified of their Soldier's death and have to make funeral arrangements and decisions about entitlements and benefits.
But grief is very personal - it cannot be standardized or resolved in a set time period. With the help of a panel of survivors selected by Casey, SOS was developed to provide longer-term, expanded support and care, taking up where casualty assistance ends.
SOS offers support through benefits coordinators who help survivors understand and apply for local, state and federal benefits; financial counselors who assist through investment and estate planning education; and support coordinators who facilitate support groups, provide life skills education and connect survivors with counseling resources.
More than 200 SOS personnel are now working on installations throughout the United States and overseas, to include National Guard and Reserve locations. The three components work and train together very closely on this One Army program to provide SOS services closest to where survivors live.
It does not matter how a Soldier died, and there is no time limit on SOS services. SOS coordinators extend a hand as survivors are working with casualty assistance officers in the first few months after a Soldier's death, but survivors do not have to accept assistance right then or ever. They can decide to return months or years later. The important thing is for survivors to know that the support is there. They are not alone - they are part of the Army Family for as long as they want to be.
There are also no exclusions in the definition of a survivor. For the SOS program, a survivor is anyone - immediate family, extended family, a friend, a fellow warrior - who feels the loss of a Soldier. Every survivor is not entitled to the same benefits under law or regulations, but SOS coordinators will work with any survivor to access counseling and other resources. Partnerships with local and national support organizations make this more expanded, inclusive approach possible.
SOS staff have made tremendous progress in a short time, receiving more than 24,000 cases from casualty and mortuary affairs and continually reaching out to survivors, both those who have suffered a loss recently and those whose loss pre-dates the program. As the program becomes established, they continue to refine and enhance services as more survivors provide feedback on their challenges and needs. For example, this past year, when it became clear that survivors who do not have identification cards were having difficulty getting onto post to use services, SOS developed a survivor vehicle decal program to ease access and provide special recognition. The decals are currently being distributed through SOS offices.
More information on SOS services and survivor resources is available on Army OneSource (www.myarmyonesource.com/FamilyProgramsandServices/SurvivingFamilies/SurvivorOutreachServices.aspx), the SOS Facebook page and garrison SOS web pages. There are also links to partner organizations whose support is so critical to connecting with and providing for survivors.
The loss of a Soldier is not a topic people want to talk about, but it is a reality of military life. We do what we can to prevent losses. We train for and plan our combat operations. We stress safety in garrison. We have enhanced programs to prevent risky behaviors and suicide. In the end, though, despite our best efforts, we cannot prevent every loss. That is why Survivor Outreach Services is so crucial. To honor the fallen Soldier's service and sacrifice for our nation, we can do one last thing - offer support for the loved ones the Soldier left behind.