Herald/SARAH MOORE KUSCHELL - Debbie Bush, executive director of The Gold Star Families Center, poses with a “Freedom is not Free” poster presented by McLane Advanced Technologies (MAT) at Fort Hood on Wednesday. MAT also donated $2,500 to Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors.

By Amanda Kim Stairrett

Killeen Daily Herald

FORT HOOD – The Gold Star Family Center has grown much since its humble beginnings as a support group for those who lost a soldier, Marine, airman or sailor.

From the center came Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors, or HUGSS, an organization aimed at helping support those families, providing hands-on activities, events and links to the surrounding communities. That organization made four announcements on Wednesday that will help bring awareness to the struggle of Gold Star families and provide the center with resources to help them.

The Dallas Foundation, a philanthropy organization based in Dallas, presented HUGSS with a $118,820 grant from the Texas Resources for Iraq-Afghanistan Deployment Fund. The money will go to hire three more full-time outreach representatives, start a Mother's Day Out program and provide additional office supplies, according to information from the center.

The funds will help the center and its director, Debbie Busch, continue to meet the needs of the families, she said. The center has programs that are tailored to families, including those for children, teens and adults. Busch also said that the center hopes to provide a child mentorship program in the future, which would pair community members with Gold Star children.

HUGSS provides families with a sense of community, no matter what, Busch said. The Fort Hood community has been stretched to the limit, she went on to say, and the surrounding communities have stepped in to help.

Aside from the Dallas Foundation grant, McLane Advanced Technologies, a Temple technology company, donated $2,500 to the center on Wednesday. A grant writer from the company also has been working with the center to apply for grants.

The company also presented the center with an art project titled "Freedom is Not Free." The framed poster was designed by an employee and Belton resident, Rex Murrah, and was completed during the annual Association of the United States Army meeting in October 2007 in Washington, D.C., according to information from the company.

Conference attendees were invited to color in sections of the poster and sign their names to show their support for Gold Star families, according to information from the company.

But Wednesday wasn't just about accepting donations. The center unveiled a series of public service announcements made with Waco's KWTX, Channel 10 in an effort to bring awareness to the center. Two of the 30-second advertisements feature Ursula Pirtle and her daughter, Katie, a Gold Star family; Pirtle is also vice president of the center's board of directors. Pirtle's husband, Spc. James H. Pirtle, was killed Oct. 3, 2003, while serving with the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, in Iraq. He was 27 years old.

The announcements encourage viewers to visit the HUGSS Web site at They are set to air on CBS affiliates around the country and will start airing today, Busch said.

The center's awareness campaign also got a boost from country singer and 2005 Nashville Star runner-up, Jason Meadows, and his song "18 Video Tapes."

Meadows performs the song at his shows and gets a response every time from family members who say the song relates to the story of a soldier killed in action and the children left behind, according to information on Meadows' Web site,

"It gave us an idea," he said in a news release on his Web site. "We wanted to find a way for '18 Video Tapes' to help these families, so we put together this video and hopefully, it will move people enough to take action. This video isn't about me or my song. It's about helping people who have a loved one who made the ultimate sacrifice – their life."

It was a way for people to support the troops by helping their families, he said.

"Take a look and send the link to everyone you can. The more that people know about HUGSS, the more good we can do."

Country Music Television has added the video to its programming and the video was nominated for the channel's "Best Tearjerker Video of the Year." The winner is picked by viewers, who can vote at the channel's Web site at

If the video wins, it will be shown during the Country Music Television Awards in April.

Getting information about HUGSS to a nationally televised audience would spread awareness, said Debbie Nicolette-Clark, the center's public relations and development director and co-founder.

"It'll really choke you up," Meadows said of the video. "There's no acting in this video, man. These are real people and this is reality."

He was right. After the video was shown during the Wednesday ceremony, sniffles could be heard throughout the room. The video can be found at Meadows' Web site and a link on the center's Web site.

People want to help soldiers and their families, Busch said; many just don't know how and helping to bring awareness to HUGSS is a way to reach out.

Besides leading support groups, the center and organization provide extended care for families that go beyond that of Army care teams and casualty assistance officers; act as the family's voice and liaison between them and their soldiers' units; communication for special memorials and events; and trains family readiness groups, care teams and casualty assistance officers, according to information from the Web site.

The center was established at Fort Hood, and installations across the United States have looked to Central Texas for guidance in creating their own centers, Busch said.

Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at or call (254) 501-7547

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