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Widow Notes Strides in Survivor Support

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2009 – Donna Engeman always had faith in her military community and its support. But in May 2006, the military support system she knew and loved temporarily faded away when she lost her husband to a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Chief Warrant Officer John Engeman and his wife Donna pose for a picture in December 2001. Engeman was killed May 2006 in Iraq, and Donna has since become active in helping the Army improve its support system for survivors of fallen servicemembers. Courtesy photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Engeman was a dedicated Army spouse for 23 years and loved the camaraderie that even spouses enjoyed.

"The Army, especially, tells us that when our loved ones go into the Army, we're part of the Army too," she said of Army spouses. "We don't sign on the line, but it's our career, too."

When her children were sick, they were cared for by the best doctors the military could offer. And when her husband deployed on several occasions during his nearly three decades of service, someone always was nearby who understood what her family was going through, she said.

The death of her husband, Army Chief Warrant Officer John Engeman, and a lack of immediate support from his unit and the Army left her feeling alone and abandoned, she said, making her transition from Army wife to widow more difficult than she ever could have imagined. “One of the things you feel right away is a sense of alienation,” she said. “You not only lose a loved one; for many of us, we lost a way of life. You’ve lost the Army culture, and there’s a real sense that our [Army] family abandoned us.”

The sense of abandonment Engeman felt is something the Army and the other military branches have been working to fix for nearly eight years. Since military families began sacrificing their loved ones after the 9/11 attacks, the Defense Department and a host of other organizations have worked tirelessly to establish a culture of support for those like her, and they’ve come a long way, she said.

“One of the key components in our Army [survivor outreach program] is that we stress to the survivors that they are part of the Army family, and they can be apart of it as long as they want,” said Engeman, now a survivor outreach and services advisor for the Army. “For as long as they want us around, we’re going to be there to support them.”

Engeman’s transition from Army wife to widow was unique, because her husband was assigned as a National Guard liaison in West Virginia. He split his work between there and Fort Bragg, N.C., where he helped to train part-time soldiers for deployments. When he was killed, there was no family support group, and the National Guard public affairs and casualty assistance officers assigned to her case weren’t familiar with how to care for her. No clear-cut process of support was in place for her and her family, she said.

“It was so overwhelming with all the paperwork,” she said. “You’re just stunned. You’re still trying to wrap your head around the fact that he’s dead, and the fact that I’d just talked to him two days ago and now he’s gone.

“There was no coordination for families, and it was a mix of Army reservists, Guardsman and active-duty support,” she continued. “There were a lot of communication issues, and no one really knew who was taking care of whom.”

Engeman and the Army have worked hard to learn from the mistakes made then and the additional stress caused to her and others, she said. The Army has even gone so far as to establish a servicewide program called Survivor Outreach Services, which began in April. The program is made up of special coordinators at each Army installation to pick up where casualty assistance officers leave off, she said.

“John was always all about people and helping soldiers,” she said of her husband. “That’s what the Army is -- taking care of people. I think we just overlooked what the care and support is that we give to our survivors. We can do better; we can do a lot better.

“The Army never promised me anything; they promised him,” she added. “They promised that warfighter if he gives the ultimate sacrifice, his family is going to be taken care of, and I want to hold them to that. Chief would want to know that his soldiers and their families are taken care of.”

Each military service depends on well-trained casualty assistance officers to notify the families of fallen servicemembers. Their focus is to help the families understand their entitlements and provide them with accurate and compassionate services.

Although each of the military branches has its own approach and system, all work to provide the necessary information survivors need to obtain government benefits as well as local community services. Casualty assistance officers are available to the survivors through funeral arrangements and the initial entitlements and benefits process.

Military survivors learn their financial benefits and their access to military facilities and what services they’re entitled to receive, such as post commissaries and exchanges, tuition assistance programs and health care services. Casualty assistance and survivor outreach specialists provide survivors with information for Department of Veterans Affairs bereavement counselors and other VA benefits as well.

Survivors also learn about local support groups and other helpful organizations outside of the military that survivors may not know about, such as the American Gold Star Mothers and the Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors, also known as TAPS.

The Gold Star Mothers, TAPS and other private outreach organizations have local chapters all across the United States to help survivors grieve. Such groups are equally committed to reminding survivors that they’re not forgotten in the military community, Engeman said.

Nearly three years have passed since Engeman became a widow. The support systems and programs aren’t perfect, but they’re making a difference with renewed commitments from the Pentagon, VA, individual units as well as civilian organizations, she said.

“Losing a loved one is probably the most devastating thing you’ll ever have to go through in life, but you can rebuild and you can go forward,” Engeman said. “My hope is that five years, eight years down the road, when a survivor is unfortunately talking about their experiences, they’ll mention how they had great support from a great casualty assistance officer. I think we can do that.”

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Related Sites:
Department of Veterans Affairs
Military Homefront Casualty Assistance
Survivor Outreach Services
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors
Gold Star Wives of America

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