Part of the success of the Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command-sponsored Survivor Outreach Services Spring Fling cookout comes from the efforts of the many volunteers who made the event possible.
More than 60 SMDC employees and their family members showed up for the SOS event Saturday to demonstrate support and love for about 50 survivors who have lost a servicemember.
“It is important to provide a warm, inviting place for the survivors to meet, and important to support those who have made the ultimate sacrifice – the loss of a loved one – for our freedom,” SMDC volunteer Kaye Blankenship said. “I have deep empathy for these families, and I understand how your heart stops each time you hear on the news that another Soldier has fallen.”
Lt. Col. Wes Young, secretary of the general staff, SMDC, is one of the two core organizers for each SMDC-sponsored SOS event. He said these events are exceptionally rewarding for him.
“It becomes immediately clear when you interact with these families that it is important to them, and it is something they need,” Young said. “Over the past two years of running these events, I have developed a close relationship with many of the families but also with the planning committee. We genuinely enjoy working on these together.”
Each event includes a meal and activities for the children. The Spring Fling also included a K9 working dog demonstration by Redstone Arsenal emergency personnel. All of this is accomplished because of the organization and planning provided by Young.
“I brought a process to the planning effort. I develop and maintain the task list and coordinate the volunteers,” Young said. “I also synchronize the efforts of those involved in the planning committee. Like any organizer, I focus on ensuring everything comes together to provide a first-class event that demonstrates our commitment to those families who have lost a Soldier.”
Lt. Gen. Richard Formica, SMDC commander, said these events have come a long way since the first one and for many of these volunteers it is a labor of love.
“We’ve got a full complement of volunteers – people who do this from their heart. They keep coming back. We don’t have to encourage them to come. We don’t have to make them come. They just come. And they reach out to the families. They’re here for the right reasons,” Formica said. “We have a couple of volunteers who have been particularly meaningful though. Lt. Col. Wes Young and Master Sgt. Tanya Savell-Marzan make a good team. They organize it, and I get to just show up. These events are a labor of love for them – they give of themselves, and they give of their heart.”
Blankenship focuses her efforts on developing the theme settings for each SOS event, but she also volunteers during the events.
“SOS provides a creative outlet for me. I have been involved with creating the themes and planning the activities,” she said. “I also help wherever needed. Sometimes I listen to the parents, and sometimes I mentor the children. My favorite part of the events is meeting and working with the children, seeing their smiles and watching them open up.”
According to survivor Judy Finch, who lost her husband, children need the attention as much or more as other family members.
“There are so many volunteers, and they are so helpful. They donate their time and their money to provide activities that takes a lot of peoples’ minds off the fact that they have lost a loved one,” Finch said. “I believe that this interaction is critical and important for the children also. They seem to really enjoy themselves, and I love to see the looks on the faces of the kids.”
Young said his favorite part of the SOS events is the children also.
“We always arrange for a variety of entertainment and activities focused toward the children, and the most rewarding aspect is watching them enjoy themselves,” Young said.
Redstone Arsenal SOS coordinator Kerrie Branson said the support offered by volunteers makes a very real difference to survivor families.
“For the survivors to feel so supported and realize how many people care about their tragic loss is big,” Branson said. “One mother told me that her children were talking nonstop about their mentor and how much fun he was. She said it really hit her how much they missed their dad, and how for a few hours, their mentor filled that void. When volunteers come out in such large numbers like they did today, it represents a big hug to the survivors, and hugs go a long way.”
Formica said the survivors are not the only ones who benefit.
“Individually and personally, it’s been good for each volunteer, and collectively, it’s been good for the command because the command comes outside of itself and focuses on something bigger,” Formica said. “And ultimately, it’s about the survivors and the opportunity to reach out to them.”
Finch said these SOS events provide benefits for the survivors beyond the obvious.
“Not only is it a good time to network with other surviving families, it’s also a good time to just be with folks – no rank, no protocol,” she said. “It brings us back into the military family.”