There should be more stories like this, and the public should be more involved in helping the troops and their families. 365 deaths from just one military base!!!! And for what??? Why are we still in Iraq? The mission is over.

—-Freckles

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Fort Hood support center: http://www.goldstarfamilysupport.org/

Army families: http://www.armyfamiliesonline.org/skins/WBLO/home.aspx

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Military Faces Growing Ranks of Bereaved


AP National Writer
One of the first sights greeting visitors to Fort Hood is a day-care center’s playground, brightly colored evidence of the Army’s commitment to be family friendly.

A few blocks away is a more poignant symbol: an office building recently converted into a first-of-its-kind support center for women and children whose husbands and fathers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. From Fort Hood alone, the toll has passed 365.

This photo, provided by war widow Melissa Storey, shows Melissa with her 4-year-old daughter, Adela, Dec. 16, 2006, on a hotel balcony in Anaheim. Calif., where they were attending a holiday gathering for families of fallen service members. Melissa, whose husband, Army Staff Sgt. Clint Storey, was killed in Iraq last August, is pregnant with a son conceived during her last days with her husband. (AP Photo/Courtesy Melissa Storey)

“It’s our sanctuary,” said Ursula Pirtle, whose daughter frequents a playroom at the center. Three-year-old Katie never met her father, Heath. He was killed in Iraq in 2003.

Over the past 15 years, America’s armed forces have taken huge strides to retain married service members — improving schools, health programs and child care. But now, as never before in this family-embracing era, the military is struggling with the toughest home-front problem of all: Doing right by the often outspoken and ever-growing ranks of the bereaved.

Of the 3,350 Americans who died in Iraq and Afghanistan through early January, 1,586 of them — 47.3 percent — were married. Those fallen warriors left behind 1,954 children, according to the Pentagon’s Manpower Data Center. More recent deaths have pushed that figure past 2,000.

Compared to the heavily draftee combat troops of the Vietnam war, today’s volunteer fighting force is older, more reliant on National Guard and Reserve citizen-soldiers, and more likely to be married.

And more so than their Vietnam counterparts, the new generation of bereaved spouses has been vocal — on their bases, at congressional hearings — in pressing for more compassionate, effective support.

It’s a constituency that politicians and generals do not want to alienate. The result has been numerous policy changes, ranging from improved benefits to better training for the officers who break the grim news of war-zone deaths. Even the Fort Hood support center materialized due to pressure from widows and their allies.

But the learning process is ongoing and the results are mixed.

“The war on terror has presented us with new challenges we haven’t seen before, in terms of number of casualties,” said an Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Kevin Arata. “We know we’re not perfect — there are things families have said we can do better, and we’ve listened to that.”

Interviews with a dozen widows at Fort Hood and across the country reveal varied experiences, but also some common bonds.

Across the board, the widows are proud of their husbands — even if they disagree on the wisdom of the Iraq war. Each woman is still grieving, and those with children have extra worries — financial and psychological — that extend far into the future.

Some are deeply grateful for the support provided by the military after their husbands’ deaths; others are critical. Among the common complaints — that notification and assistance officers were sometimes ill-informed or aloof, and that they were bounced through different parts of the military bureaucracy when seeking help.

“We have to have someone who knows what they’re talking about,” Pirtle said. “The blind-leading-the-blind system isn’t working out.”


Pirtle’s daughter, Katie — born 26 days after her father’s death in October 2003 — seems to be thriving. But many of the now-fatherless older children struggle emotionally — to the point where school can be anguishing and therapy is needed. The military pays for some such counseling, but there are limits, and families say the logistics can be difficult.

In Evans, Ga., Irene Prather is looking for a small Christian school for her 11-year-old son, Aaron, who has floundered at public school since his father, Army Chief Warrant Officer Clint Prather, was killed in Afghanistan two years ago.

“It seems like every day is a struggle for him,” Prather said. “When we talk to the counselors, nobody understands what’s really going on. They weren’t prepared to deal with people who’ve lost somebody in the war.”

Clint Prather served 11 years in the Army. His widow, who valued the tight-knit community on base, has found the shift to the civilian world difficult.

“It’s kind of like you’re pushed to the side,” she said. “You’re not part of that military family any more.”

Other widows still feel those bonds, and reunite — often with children in tow — at “grief camps” or expenses-paid holidays arranged by charities.

Some stay in touch with buddies of their late husbands. A Palmer, Mass., widow, Melissa Storey, was still getting calls from soldiers in Iraq eight months after her husband, Staff Sgt. Clint Storey, was killed there.

“We’re just as much a part of the Army as before he died,” she said.

Storey, 29, has a 4-year-old daughter, Adela, who’s had therapy sessions since her father’s death. During the couple’s final days together, she also became with pregnant with a son, to be named Clint. She considers her benefits package generous and praised the Army’s outreach to families.

“But part of being a good military spouse is accepting that you don’t come first — the mission comes first,” she added. “It’s a hard life. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. You suck it up and deal with it.”

While many widows have kept a low public profile, some have testified before Congress to urge better benefits or have gained prominence by speaking out elsewhere.

Laura Youngblood of South Hempstead, N.Y., wife of a Navy corpsman killed in Iraq, made national TV appearances assailing anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son also died in Iraq. Hildi Halley of Falmouth, Maine, met with President Bush last year and blamed his policies for the death of her husband, National Guard Capt. Patrick Damon, from an apparent heart attack in Afghanistan.

“To have him die in a war you didn’t agree with is that much worse,” she said.

The resentment has been deepened by her experience with the military after her husband’s death. She still fumes that his personal belongings reeked of insecticide when they belatedly arrived, and that she spent weeks wrestling with Army bureaucracy before finally reclaiming her own love letters to him that had been confiscated.

Her husband had urged her to seek support among other spouses, but Halley — a mother of two adolescents — feels estranged from other military wives who support the war.

“I couldn’t have them as my support group,” she said. “They’re going through enough pain, and if they want to believe their fairy tale, who am I to wake them up?”

Even at Fort Hood, the Army’s largest armored base with 43,900 military personnel and 17,800 family members, anti-war sentiment sometimes surfaces.

“I don’t support this war,” said Ursula Pirtle. “What did my husband die for? I don’t believe what we’re doing over there helps our country.”

Yet she views her fallen husband as a hero. “When he was killed, I would love to have been there holding him,” Pirtle said.

The campaign to establish Fort Hood’s Gold Star Family Support Center was led by Debbie Busch, whose own Army husband is alive and well, but who grew dismayed by the lack of organized backing for widows she knew. Initially, there were weekly support meetings at a chapel; last September her group got its own building, complete with lounge, kitchenette and playrooms.

Calls have come from other bases, seeking advice on launching similar programs, and Busch’s efforts have been noticed by senior Army officials.

“The fact that these families spoke out and said it could be done better, it gave the Army the opportunity to change things,” Busch said.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office examined some of the issues troubling bereaved families. It said support services were inconsistent and advised the Defense Department to improve its oversight.

“Most survivors don’t know what they’re entitled to, and that’s a big deal,” said the GAO’s Derek Stewart. “There should be one place that survivors could go and, in one sitting, have an individual spell out all the services and entitlements coming your way.”

Addressing some of the concerns, the Defense Department updated its guide to survivors’ benefits, which have increased substantially since the Iraq war began. The so-called “death gratuity” for next of kin has climbed from $6,000 to $100,000; military life insurance payments have risen from $250,000 to $400,000.

Brad Snyder, a benefits expert with the Armed Forces Services Corp., said the package compares well to private-sector plans and can exceed $60,000 a year for a sergeant’s widow with three children.

Children of fallen service members now get military medical coverage until adulthood, rather than losing it three years after the death. A bereaved family can now stay in military housing for a year, not six months.

Among the Fort Hood families benefiting from such changes are the widow and four children of Maj. William F. Hecker III, who was killed in January 2006 just six weeks after reaching Iraq. His prior duties included teaching a course on comparative war poetry at the U.S. Military Academy.

Richelle Hecker, his widow, said the children — the youngest 3, the oldest 11 — were helped by grief counseling.

“The counselors play games with them, let them talk about all those things that after a while other people don’t want to hear anymore,” Hecker said.

She also noted the stream of casualties has prompted many military families to think more seriously about future risks and attend financial-planning sessions that once seemed morbid or unnecessary.

“It’s making or breaking people,” Hecker said. “I see some marriages growing stronger and others that aren’t.”

The Army, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the Iraq and Afghanistan deaths, has been striving to address the most prevalent complaints from widows.

In January, it completed an overhaul of the training for casualty notification and assistance officers — the ones who deal directly with grieving families. The goal is for these officers to exhibit “professional compassion.”

Col. Patrick Gawkins, director of the Army’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, said the new curriculum includes video footage with actors portraying officers and family members.

The Army also launched a ’round-the-clock call center to assist survivor families with questions about benefits.

“The benefits issue comes across as very bureaucratic and hard to understand,” Gawkins said. “We want to clarify and simplify the instruction to the greatest extent possible, given it’s in a time of great emotional stress.”

Joanne Steen, whose Navy aviator husband died in a helicopter crash in 1992, felt she was filling a gaping void last year by co-authoring “Military Widow: A Survival Guide” — offering advice about coping with the loss of a military husband.

“As a young widow, you may feel like a sideshow in a circus,” she wrote. “Because you aren’t supposed to be a widow at such a young age, you don’t fit in anywhere.”

Some widows, though, are well into middle age. Nancy Kelly, of Richmond, Maine, is 52 and has three grandchildren as well as three grown children.

She and her husband, Staff Sgt. Dale James Kelly Jr., had been married 25 years when he was killed in Iraq last May while deployed with the Maine Army National Guard. One tough task was explaining the absence of “Grandpa Kelly” to his grandchildren.

Herself an Air National Guard veteran, Kelly said her husband and his Guard colleagues were well-trained and aware of dangers they faced. But she suggested part of the problem for the Guard-dependent military is that troops’ families are less steeled for the traumas of war than active-duty families.

“From a family standpoint, no, we’re not prepared for this,” Kelly said. “The men go off once a month and two weeks a year (for training), and for many of us wives, it’s, ‘Oh, that’s the time we have dinner with the girls while they’re off playing soldier.'”

She paused, reflecting on her husband.

“He was and is my soul mate,” Kelly said. “My life as I knew it will never be the same.”

Fort Hood support center: http://www.goldstarfamilysupport.org/

Army families: http://www.armyfamiliesonline.org/skins/WBLO/home.aspx

Fort Hood Soldiers