Survivor Outreach Services has been in place since 2009 and is the newest program in Army Community Service, covering 11 counties and more than 300 surviving family members.
“I’d like people to understand that you’re never healed from grief,” said Kerrie Branson, who oversees SOS on Redstone Arsenal. “It’s an ongoing process you go through forever. It’s never ending.”
When a Soldier dies, a casualty assistance officer is notified. An officer is assigned to work with the family for the first year, helping with everything from planning the funeral to counseling, applying for benefits and making sure benefits are received.
“I come along during that first year. The casualty officer introduces the family to me and I provide long-term assistance as long as the family wants to be a part of it – usually for years and years,” Branson said.
She works with area Gold Star families. The designation stems from the Service Flag, first flown by families during World War I. It bears a blue star for every immediate family member serving in the armed forces during any period of war. If a loved one died, a gold star replaced the blue star.
For Vietnam War era and earlier, Branson gets referrals for families from the community or a family member will call when they find out about SOS.
“We can’t go that far back in our computers, but we get calls from people who share stories about a Gold Star family and we’ll then reach out to them, we’ll bring them in and make things right for them,” Branson said.
It’s important, she said because there are a lot of milestones with military deaths, especially for the children.
“The children get many benefits and I’m able to make sure they apply for their education benefits and help them with the processes they have to go through,” she said. “Lots of things may come up that they need my assistance with later in life as they grow up.”
SOS provides support and assistance for families of fallen service members through support groups, benefits and financial counseling/planning, and referral services.
What keeps Branson motivated about her job is being able to keep memories alive.
“The worst fear for anyone is that their loved one will be forgotten,” she said. “When someone gave their life for their country — whether it’s on the battlefield or in training — we want to make sure we respect that sacrifice and service.”
In the SOS office there are various arts and crafts on display created by children of fallen Soldiers.
SOS is also involved in many community activities. In 2014, families participated in Cotton Row Run with a living memorial. The Gold Star families created a flag line down the street and displayed street posters of all service members who have died.
“It was well-received and people were so respectful and inspired that we did it again this year,” Branson said. “AMCOM has now asked us to do it for a 5K run in July. We’re getting asked to a lot of living memorials and every time we do it, say if 3,000 people run, they are reminded of the sacrifice given to allow them to do what they are doing at that moment – run in a race.”
Looking to the future, she said she’s working to partner with organizations to create an annual boots memorial at the Huntsville/Madison County Veterans Memorial – one boot to represent each fallen Soldier from Alabama.
She’s also played a role in the plans for the construction of a Labyrinth and Honor Walk on the arsenal that can be used by the entire community. It will be a place for release of grief and burdens and renewal of the spirit.
“I am looking forward to the possible healing and relief it can bring not only to my Gold Star families but the many service members, civilian employees, contractors and their families who are struggling in other areas such as PTSD, drug abuse, depression and other stressors,” Branson said. “An honor walk gives people an opportunity to let go of burdens and try to get some relief.”
The labyrinth should be built before the end of the year, she said.
“Over the past five years, the Space and Missile Defense Command has hosted Survivor Outreach Services and provided events two to three times per year to reach out to survivors and ensure they know they are still a part of the military family and that their service members are not forgotten,” Branson said. ”They have a planning committee for the events and usually provide over 50 volunteers to set up, cook, mentor kids, play games and clean up.”
In the future, Branson hopes to see other organizations — on and off post — do the same by hosting and incorporating Gold Star families in things they do to give them a feeling of support and let them know they are honored as well as their fallen heroes.
“With the embrace we’ve received so far from Redstone Arsenal and Huntsville, people are so inspired and want to do more with our program,” she said. “The more we grow, the more educated the community gets that people living right among them instead of being a single program to offer support and help, it becomes community-wide support.”