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Helping JBLM families adjust to ‘new normal’

Northwest Guardian

Published: 11:55AM June 27th, 2013

Holly’s heart stopped when she looked out of her kitchen window that Friday morning in August 2009. She knew why the two uniformed officers were approaching her front door. The casualty notification officer said her husband of three years and father of their 7-month-old daughter, Chloe, was dead. Sergeant Matthew L. Ingram of 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment in the 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, had died when an explosive device hit his MRAP in Chapa Dara, Afghanistan.

Holding Chloe on her lap, Holly listened with detachment, as if she were watching the scene from across the room. She felt numb. Where to go from here?

Her feelings had always guided Holly Ingram and helped her make sense of things. But when you don’t feel anything, how do you know what to do? How do you trust your emotions to make the necessary decisions?

For spouses of fallen Soldiers like Holly, help is available through the Casualty Assistance and the Survivor Outreach Services programs.

While Casualty Assistance provides next of kin notification and focused administrative assistance, Army Community Service’s SOS offers guidance and long-term support to families of fallen active, reserve, and National Guard service members. Chip Fowler, JBLM SOS support coordinator, explained the holistic approach of the SOS program.

“We help all family members affected by the death of a Soldier by providing access to support, information and services. We coordinate with multiple on- and off-post agencies, closest to where the surviving families live,” Fowler said.

During times of emotional distress it is difficult to navigate the sea of tax, legal, educational and financial information arising following the death of a service member. It is even more problematic to make the best choices. SOS guides survivors through the decision-making process by offering, long-term financial planning, coordination of legal and tax issues, grief counseling, networking and recognition events, as well as assistance with education matters.

According to Ryki Carlson, JBLM SOS financial counselor, one of the most important steps for survivors is to evaluate their current situations and develop long-term financial plans.

“We want them to succeed over the long haul,” Carlson said. “I work with the families to put together a financial plan that they can follow and adjust as their lives change. This gives them the opportunity to achieve goals, mark milestones, and find their ‘new normal’ without the added financial stress.”

Families may take advantage of SOS for as long as they wish.

“While there is lifetime access to SOS, the real intent of the program is to help survivors make the transition out of the fog of grief into healthy and productive lives,” Fowler said. For Ingram, being able to call on SOS staff for the last four years has been a lifesaver.

She has worked closely with the SOS financial counselor and has participated in numerous SOS events.

As time went by, Ingram became more comfortable talking about her experience. She wanted to help others in similar situations and decided to share her own journey at SOS community briefings on JBLM.

“I knew what I was doing marrying him. I knew what the circumstances could be potentially, but nothing can prepare you for such an experience,” she said. “I would like to encourage other surviving families to visit their local SOS office — when they are ready — and participate in networking events. For me, I feel in a comfort zone to be around that social group (widows). Whether be an older widow that can give me advice or a younger widow that I can help. It is self-healing either way and I enjoy being able to move on,” Ingram said.

Many times issues arise months, even years after the loss of a service member. The SOS program and its counselors are available to connect those in need with people and organizations that can help survivors cope with the loss.

“The best part of the program,” Fowler said, “is that the U.S. Army cares about survivor families. This isn’t just talk, this is action.”

To find out more about SOS, stop by the newly dedicated SOS center in Building 2166, Liggett Avenue on JBLM Lewis Main or call 253-966-5047.