By Donna Engeman

On a sunny morning, two uniformed messengers stand at the front door of a soldier’s home. They are about to deliver the news that every military family dreads.

The door opens to a smiling face that quickly turns into one of sudden recognition, shock and trepidation. As the messengers step inside, stinging words are spoken. “The secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret,” is uttered as the door silently closes behind them.

A soldier has died.

The family left behind will embark on a roller coaster journey through grief, loneliness and heartache as they seek to rebuild their shattered lives.

In 2008, the Army launched the Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) program to provide long-term support to families of fallen soldiers. As an integral piece of the casualty continuum of care, its mission is to embrace and reassure survivors that they remain part of the Army family for as long as they desire.

A primary goal of SOS is supporting our survivors with programs and services that help them build independence and resiliency. Reassuring our survivors that the loss of their loved one does not mean the loss of their Army family is a crucial and powerful message in aiding the healing process.

Nearly nine years ago, on May 6, 2006, I was one of those many military family members who stood at their doors in shock and disbelief. In my case, the knock brought the news that my husband of 23 years, Army Chief Warrant Officer 4, John W. Engeman, was killed in Baghdad when the Humvee he was riding in was demolished by an improvised explosive device.

I was told the blast was so intense the rescue team located on a nearby forward operating base couldn’t get near the scene until hours later. By that time, John’s remains were nearly burned beyond recognition.

Donna Engeman rode her Harley Davidson from San Antonio to Washington, D.C., in 2012 to participate in the Rolling Thunder motorcycle event on Memorial Day. Visiting the grave of her husband, John, at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery was her main reason for making the trip. | Photo credit Department of Defense Rob McIlvane

The messengers stayed with me at my home in Princeton, West Virginia, while I woke up my 20-year-old-daughter Nikki to tell her the news. I then called my son Patrick on his cellphone while he stood in a physical training formation at Fort Drum, New York. I informed him his father had been killed in Iraq.

My notification officer then told me that my casualty assistance officer (CAO) would be in touch within 24 hours. After that, they left. They seemed nervous, as if they wanted to be away from me as soon as they could.

There never was a time when the Army wasn’t part of our lives. That’s how I’d met John. We were both soldiers stationed in Germany working as mechanics. He was a large, handsome man with wavy red hair, twinkling green eyes and an infectious laugh.

John wasn’t laughing the first time I met him, though. I remember thinking he was grouchy because he was ordering me to grab my duffle bag and “get moving.” I was not the most dutiful soldier. But there was something behind those twinkling green eyes that captivated me. He was extremely intelligent, kind and had the patience of a saint. We had our share of ups and downs, as every marriage does. But I wouldn’t change a thing about our life together, except that it ended way too soon.

I had graduated from college the day before John died. We were on the Army’s “20-year college plan,” where you try to patch together an education one permanent change of station move at a time.

“You’re going to be great,” John told me the day I graduated while he watched me receive my diploma over the Internet.

That was the last time I’d ever hear his voice.

I suddenly felt so lost and anxious without John beside me. I had many questions and desperately needed answers. What should I do first? Was there someplace I should go? How was I going to pay that month’s mortgage?

A few days after John’s funeral, my CAO came to the house with stacks of forms. He showed me where to sign, but seemed frustrated by my questions. The things that were important to me—like whether I needed a new military ID or if I needed to sell my house—weren’t even on his radar. “You don’t need to worry about that right now,” he said.

Donna Engeman, left, is shown a pin by her son, Army Captain Patrick Engeman, after they accepted the honor on behalf of Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Engeman, who was inducted into the Ordnance Corps Hall of Fame in 2011. | Photo credit Department of Defense

Almost immediately, I began to feel a sense of alienation from the Army that John and I had known and loved for many years. Once the necessary forms had been signed and all the borrowed casserole dishes had been returned, I was left standing between two worlds. In the world I knew best, the Army, life had to go on in support of our troops who were still fighting two wars. I was no longer a part of that world, but longed to be.

On the other hand was the civilian world, where many people did not know what Reveille and Retreat were, much less stop what they were doing and render respect. I realized that we were definitely missing something when it came to supporting the families of our fallen. In doing so, I felt we were failing the service men and women who had sacrificed their lives for our nation.

In late 2007, my daughter and I were invited to the Pentagon for a ceremony honoring Gold Star children. Both Patrick and Nikki would receive a medal from the then-Army Chief of Staff, General George W. Casey, Jr. The Pentagon team set up a video conference so Patrick could be awarded his medal at the same time as Casey was awarding one to Nikki. Before the ceremony began, I found myself standing in the hallway with the general. This was my opportunity to tell him my thoughts.

“Donna,” he said, as if he’d known me forever. “How are you doing?” In his voice, I heard genuine concern, as if at that moment my welfare was the only thing that mattered to him. Was he for real?

I took a deep breath. I was never going to get a chance to speak with him again. And if he did care, and I told him how I felt, then maybe things would change.

“Sir, I’m okay,” I said. “But there are issues about the casualty assistance process that have disappointed me.” I told him everything, how no one seemed able to answer basic questions. I explained the difficulties I had navigating the Army and Veterans Affairs bureaucracies. He listened intently, nodding, his eyes never leaving mine. “You’re not the first family member to tell me this,” he said. “I’m forming an advisory panel to make recommendations we can act on.”

While visiting Arlington National Cemetery on her motorcycle, Donna Engeman shows off a tattoo honoring her late husband. | Photo credit Department of Defense

“Well, good luck with that,” I said, as I turned to leave. Before I could take a step, Casey said he wanted me to be on the panel. I couldn’t say no to a four-star general, especially one with his personal background. I knew his father, Army Major General George W. Casey, Sr., was killed in Vietnam. That made him a Gold Star child.

In the months that followed, our committee talked with hundreds of family members—spouses, parents, children, siblings and others—whose loved ones were killed in service to our nation. It became apparent to all of us that there was a major gap in the casualty assistance process.

The Army didn’t have a long-term plan in place for survivors, so Casey made survivor support across the casualty continuum a priority. The survivor committee he put together became known as the CSA Survivor Advisor Working Group. The group formed a plan to create a “One Army” approach to support survivors near where they live, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the soldier’s death, for as long as they desired.

In October 2008, we hit the ground running with our Army Reserve and National Guard counterparts. I use “we” because I have been fortunate enough to work in the SOS program since its inception. I have watched this critical program grow from a two-person operation within the Army’s Family Morale Welfare Recreation Command to our present 11-member staff at Installation Management Command. We now have more than 238 SOS coordinators and financial counselors nationwide who work with surviving family members. SOS is the one-stop entry point for survivors who may need assistance with support groups, financial planning or counseling.

Our teams regularly organize events and activities that focus on remembering our fallen and honoring their survivors. These events, and others hosted by our nongovernmental partners, provide opportunities for our SOS teams to meet survivors who may not go to an installation SOS office.

During an event last year in Kentucky, one of our SOS coordinators was introduced to a Vietnam-era surviving spouse. During the course of their conversation, the coordinator got the sense the survivor wasn’t receiving all of her benefits. After some research and a few telephone calls, the surviving spouse eventually received more than $100,000 in unpaid entitlements she was eligible for. We connected her with a financial counselor, too.

Volunteer camp counselor Private Matthew Watson, center, leads the blue team in a timed team challenge to lower a hula hoop to the ground in unison without dropping it July 11 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. | Photo credit Army photo by Sergeant Leejay Lockhart

The current Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond T. Odierno, has also made survivor support one of his top priorities. He’s looking to make SOS an Army institution so we’re able to support families of the fallen for many years to come. He also listens to the experiences and expertise of the Survivor Advisor Working Group, which is made up of 10 survivors from various walks of life. The group meets with him twice a year to provide insights and recommendations on issues and concerns important to surviving family members.

Our direct and unprecedented access to the senior uniformed officer in the U.S. Army has resulted in significant changes and improvements for survivors. We created the Army’s Gold Star Awareness and Recognition Campaign, which is an effort to provide education and awareness of the Gold Star and Next of Kin lapel buttons. SOS also developed a plan that grants non-military survivors access to Army installations to make it easier for them to attend survivor-related events, activities and services.

Since its inception, SOS has helped many survivors stay connected to the Army family. We’ve helped them navigate difficult phases of their lives and we’ve also helped the survivors secure benefits they’re entitled to. But we don’t have all the answers.

In a process as individual as grief, there is no one standardized right or wrong answer. However, we will be here to help survivors find the answers that work for them. Our fallen soldiers gave their all to our nation and our Army. The very least we can do for them is to honor the promise to care for those they left behind.

– Donna R. Engeman is a survivor advocate and program manager with Army Survivor Outreach Services.