For some people, the memory of personal tragedy never fades.
“I was with a client when I got the call,” said Linda Eldred. Her voice cracked as she spoke. Her eyes filled with tears. “At first I didn’t answer my phone and it kept ringing and ringing. Finally, I answered it and it was the Clallam County coroner.”
Her son, Marcus Eldred, an Army cook for the Army Reserve in Marysville, Wash., died at the age of 24 while diving near the Neah Bay harbor, Wash., Oct. 11, 2015. He got tangled in kelp and was unable to resurface.
“I was in shock,” Eldred said during the Survivor Outreach Services Open House at its new location in Waller Hall on Joint Base Lewis-McChord May 1. “When I got off the phone with his girlfriend, I had to call everybody else.”
When service members unexpectedly pass away, there is a lot required of the families. This is where SOS steps in. They connect families to resources and benefits, as well as provide long-term support and a safe haven for survivors.
Survivors are defined by the U.S. military as any family members who have lost a loved one who served in the U.S. Military.
Lori Gibson, wife of Vietnam veteran Duane Harris, is another survivor who was present at the open house.
Gibson, who lost her grandfather, father and husband to post-traumatic stress disorder, said that every time she told a therapist her story, they would walk away. The SOS did not. It allowed her an avenue to talk about what happened without being judged.
Gibson said that when she met Harris, he had already retired from the Army. She could tell something was not right with how angry Harris would get. He would get fired from jobs frequently for having outbursts at work.
“I urged him to get help when we started dating,” Gibson said. “He refused to go to the (Veterans Affairs), no matter how much I pleaded.”
As their relationship grew, Gibson and Harris got married and moved in together.
“It’s true what they say,” Gibson said. “You can’t see your trees when they are in front of you because you are too close to see the changes. When we moved in together, I no longer saw the issues Duane was having before we moved in together.”
Gibson and one of Harris’s fellow veterans found Harris outside of his house. He shot himself with a .45 caliber pistol.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 6,000 veterans, under 30 years old, died between 2000-2014.
When they pass, family members are often left with little more than memories and memorabilia.
“I remember going to a horse show with him,” Gibson said. “I would get so upset because my hair was dirty and he knew this. Every morning he would boil water just so I could wash my hair. I think that is what I miss about him the most.”
As Gibson reminisced, a smile crept across her face. She said the memories of Harris are what keep her connected.
Attending events like the SOS open house with other survivors has offered her more therapy than she ever received from any civilian organization, Gibson said.
Although their situations are different, Eldred and Gibson share the identity of survivors. As survivors, they are entitled to certain benefits, including money in the Thrift Savings Plan, and untaxable service-related income.
SOS’s mission is to assist all survivors in receiving their entitlements.
“If we need something, we are able to speak with any of the counselors at SOS,” Eldred said. “She will send us emails about events they host. For Easter, we had a zoo visit and it allowed me to speak with other survivors. They all have a story and not everyone’s story is the same. It’s almost therapeutic. SOS has made these connections possible.”