By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD - Like most soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Verdell Lewis has today off from work.
But she'll be at Fort Hood anyway, visiting her husband's picture and other family members of fallen soldiers at Survivor Outreach Services.
"On Memorial Day, it makes it a little harder because I'm expected to be a soldier, but I still have to grieve," said Lewis. "It's rough for us all, though. We'll be here, the 'widsters.' We'll make it through together."
Established in 2009, Fort Hood SOS corresponds with more than 800 such "widsters" - the sisterhood of widows' preferred term - and other family members of fallen Central Texas soldiers.
Built as the Army model for the now-widespread SOS program, Fort Hood's center is responsible for meeting surviving family members' needs long after their unit-assigned casualty assistance officer.
While an officer helps a family through the immediate post-notification period, SOS' four-person staff helps survivors navigate the longer-term logistical, financial and emotional implications of losing a soldier, program manager James Elzie said.
While some Gold Star families avoid military life following a death, others crave a permanent home at Fort Hood, he said. "If your husband's been in jump boots for 12 years, then you have also been in jump boots for 12 years. Here, even if the soldier has passed away, the family is still connected to the military for as long as they want to be."
Terry Peggins, the center's financial adviser, said his chief mission is to assure family members "that that soldier is not forgotten."
SOS offers twice-monthly group therapy sessions and regular get-togethers for family members, in addition to its usual "open door" policy. The facility includes separate playrooms for kids and teens, a comfortable sitting room and a full kitchen for cook-ins and spontaneous, tea-fueled conversations.
"A lot of talking happens around this table," said Elzie, a retired soldier who worked in Army mortuary affairs and prisoner of war recovery for 22 years. "A lot of times, families just want to talk, and they want you to listen."
Lewis, a Warrior Transition Brigade soldier who volunteers at the center in her free time, agreed. "We have potlucks, where we laugh and we cry, and we eat, and we cry."
But Lewis' favorite room is the Hall of Remembrance, a large sitting space lined by 246 photos of fallen soldiers and other military personnel whose friends and families have hung up their likenesses.
Today, she said, "after I leave the cemetery, that's where I'll be."
Lewis feels close to her husband, Robert, in the hall. The master sergeant died in her arms in Killeen of a massive heart attack in March 2011 at 46. Lewis, 44, described him as a loving, "gentle giant" whose care for his 4th Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command soldiers saw her email inbox flooded with personalized condolences following his death.
Elzie said other families feel close to their soldiers in the hall. To encourage the connection, SOS staff place an envelope behind each photo frame, where families can put notes written on supplied "Thinking of you" cards.
Some families, including that of Spc. Scott Morrison, who died in Afghanistan in September 2010 while deployed with 20th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, hung heart-shaped dog tag charms from the frame during a recent visit to the post.
Although his work often means sharing in survivors' sadness (small children are particularly moving, he said), Elzie said he wants to spend the rest of his working days at SOS.
"This is the most rewarding job I've had," he said, "helping these families out as much as a I can."
Lewis said she'll continue to volunteer at SOS for the foreseeable future. As a survivor, she can offer new family members the kind of support only fellow survivors can. And she said she's formed strong bonds with Elzie and his staff.
"We're a big family," she said. "Even if we don't know each other, when we get together as a family, it just comes out automatically. We're here for each other and we've built a bond."
Contact Colleen Flaherty at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7559.