'Gold Star' Efforts Help Families of Fallen Soldiers

A mural adorns a playroom at Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center. i i

hide captionA mural adorns a playroom at Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center.

Melissa Block, NPR
A mural adorns a playroom at Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center.

A mural adorns a playroom at Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center.

Melissa Block, NPR
Debbie Busch

hide captionThree years ago, Debbie Busch founded Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors, the group that operates the support center.

Melissa Block, NPR

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In a perfect world, the group wouldn't even exist. But at Fort Hood, its members do a lot of good.

Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors is a support organization for the families of Fort Hood soldiers killed in action.

The group, known as HUGSS, serves more than 50 families in the Killeen area of Texas. Through e-mail and phone calls, its reach expands to more than 250 people throughout the state.

Though it's based at Fort Hood, the nonprofit is funded by private donations and run by volunteers.

Debbie Busch started the organization three years ago, after discovering that many of the needs of Gold Star families were not being met. The wife of a command sergeant major, Busch has led family readiness groups during her 25 years as an Army spouse.

During the first few days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a friend of her husband's - another command sergeant major - was killed. Busch contacted his widow to offer her support. Several months later, the widow asked Busch, "Why are you the only one who still cares and calls me?"

As the support group grew, members began comparing notes. One thing became clear: Fort Hood's casualty assistance officers needed better training.

The main job of a CAO is to keep family members informed and to ensure they receive all the benefits to which they're entitled.

But some CAOs weren't following up in the weeks and months after a soldier's death; families felt abandoned and disconnected from the military.

HUGSS pushed for and helped create a 40-hour training course for the officers. In addition to receiving a refresher course on which agencies provided services and benefits for Gold Star families, CAOs learned more about coping with grief and about the different counseling and support options available for survivors.

Busch says now she hears praise for the CAOs from new Gold Star families, and the Army is using the training course as a model for programs at other bases.

Today, HUGSS operates Fort Hood's new Gold Star Family Support Center. There are three different children's playrooms and a cozy meeting room, furnished with overstuffed couches and comfy chairs for adults.

Boxes of tissues stand sentry in every room, where a sympathetic ear, emergency childcare or other extra assistance is usually available.

Ever mindful that Gold Star families worry about being forgotten, volunteers regularly call or send notes on days that are hard for survivors: birthdays, holidays and the anniversaries of their soldiers' death. The support group meets at the center about every two weeks.

Ursula Pirtle, 37, got involved with HUGGS in 2004, after her husband Heath, an Army gunner, was killed in Iraq. She was eight months pregnant when he died.

"This is a unique place," Pirtle says. "Before Debbie, there was no place to go, no place to bring us together."

Pirtle says she has learned a lot from trial and error, and from talking with other widows.

"You don't want someone to tell you, 'I know how you feel,' because they don't. But it's nice to hear, 'I've been through this, I imagine it's rough on you. Here's some advice that worked for me and some things that haven't. I'm happy to share with you,'" Pirtle says.

Wendy Weikel is a new member, and she says it's comforting to see how other people live with their loss. Women like Pirtle, who are still grieving but are able to smile and embrace the positive aspects of their lives, give Weikel an idea of what her own life might be like a year or two from now.

Weikel's husband, Ian, died in April 2006. The two met when they were students at West Point, and both went to Iraq in 2003. A former company commander, Weikel left the Army soon before their son Jonathan was born.

On advice from the other widows, Weikel made what she calls a "preemptive strike" on her first Christmas without her husband.

"I wanted Jonathan to be happy and to be with smiling faces, something I couldn't give him," she recalls.

So she left him with his grandparents and spent part of the day at Ian's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

"I had to see his name on that tombstone to understand fully in my head what's going on. It's what I personally needed on Christmas," she says.

Weikel credits the Gold Star Center for helping her navigate the good days and the bad, and for keeping her connected to the military community.

Busch says when she hears of Fort Hood casualties in the news, she knows more families will be coming her way.

"There's always a need for personal contact," she says.

Her organization is hoping, with more volunteers and more donations, to expand its services beyond the base, to grieving families in other cities and states.

"We've done things here at Fort Hood to improve the care of Gold Star families, but it's our nation's responsibility to help care for these families," Busch says.

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