News: Retired soldiers bring experience, compassion to Survivor Outreach Services
Story by Sgt. Janelle Dean
FORT BLISS, Texas – Upon entering a beautifully renovated guardhouse through the prominent Southern-style veranda, visitors discover fine hardwood floors, plush couches and other décor. In many ways, the Survivor Outreach Services Family Center here, located along the installation’s historic Sheridan Road, is more like a home than a military facility.
The inviting atmosphere is also home to a somber tribute. Along a back wall of an adjacent parlor room hangs the photos of dozens of fallen service members, each with their own story. Michelle Jones and Lew Lewis know them all.
They work for the Army’s Survivor Outreach Services program, which provides long-term enhanced services to surviving Family members by helping them navigate through various benefit programs and the emotional trauma that accompanies loss.
As a financial counselor, Jones is among the first people survivors encounter in the casualty assistance process following the deaths of their loved ones. A retired command sergeant major, she served 26 years as an Army financial management technician, and today she provides financial guidance to surviving Family members, as well as a shoulder to cry on.
“They’re going to tell their story before we discuss anything financial,” she explained. “[Finance] is what I’m here to do, but that does not take precedence over their grief.”
Her colleague, Lewis, is a retired Army master sergeant who served nearly 26 years as a chaplain assistant who puts those skills to use as the center’s support coordinator, providing other counseling and support services to the families of fallen troops.
“I tell you what, it shaped my life big time,” he admitted. “Part of my life experience and professional experience in the military helped define it. I know how to interact with families dealing with crisis because I’ve been there. I understand the range of dynamics that you can experience with a military family.”
Jones and Lewis agree that their more than fifty years of combined military service help them better assist the nearly 500 area survivors they currently serve.
“Some of our family members, when they find out that I’m retired and that Lew’s retired, there’s a certain connection,” Jones said. “It’s like I can relate to where they were. I was at Camp Liberty; their son was at Camp Liberty. So I can relate to them at a different level than just being a straight civilian who has never been to war.”
Lewis, a Lake Charles, La., native, said his work at the center reminds him of the significance of maintaining proper personnel and legal records, such as the military’s Record of Emergency Data or Department of Defense Form 93, service members’ Group Life Insurance and a will. He regrets not having paid more attention to his own personnel files during his service and urges those currently serving to do better.
“We were just pencil-whipping those documents. We weren’t paying attention to how important these documents are,” he confessed. “We see the legacy, the long-term impact it has on a surviving family member when you see that soldiers may not have made well-informed decisions, and the rippling effect it has on the family and how it complicates their grief and quality of life.”
Jones agrees that her military service prepared her to deal with soldier issues and familiarized her to the importance of keeping records up to date, but now she has a unique perspective on those who are left behind in the wake of a fatality.
“I’m in the position where I see the effects of that tragedy downrange and how it affects the family members back in the states and the reason why we need to do stuff better,” she insisted. “The reason why that DD 93, that SGLI, that will, is so important.”
Lewis also has a very personal reason for why he does this job: his own son currently serves in the Army and was injured in Afghanistan in May of 2011.
“My son is still alive. I could be one of these parents who have experienced a loss,” he said, pausing a moment to reflect on the photos of the fallen hanging in the Hall of Remembrance directly behind him. “I came very close, very close to where they are at. I just happened to be a very fortunate dad who had a son who was wounded and who could have been killed, by all the reports should have been a dead man, and he didn’t die. It gives so much more honor and meaning of how much more I should do for these surviving family members.”
The SOS Family Center is much like a home and Jones and Lewis agree that’s how it should be. The program will assist the Families of the fallen for as long as they have need of it, for months or years if necessary. They assist the survivors of those killed in recent and current conflicts, as well as service members and retirees who lost their lives to accidents, suicide, and any other means. They do not sort them or prioritize them, but rather reassure them all that they will remain part of the Army family for as long as they wish.
“It’s like an extended family to us. We carry their grief and their sorrows and their happiness with us,” Jones said quietly.