FORT BLISS, Texas — An Army-wide program at Fort Bliss wants to provide a warm, nurturing environment for families who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and lost a servicemember.
It also wants to make sure they aren't forgotten and get all the support they need.
About a year ago, the Survivor Outreach Services Family Center opened in a renovated guardhouse at 241 Sheridan Road. The center has a homey, comfortable feel that's designed to make surviving family members feel at ease, said Lew Lewis, Survivor Outreach Services program coordinator at Fort Bliss.
The center provides long-term support services to those who have lost a servicemember while on active duty — including during deployments and from accidents, sickness and other types of death.
"The way we honor their service is by making sure we take care of their families," Lewis said.
SOS serves as a liaison and advocate for these families, said Lewis, a retired Army master sergeant and former chaplain assistant.
That past role gave him plenty of experience in dealing with families who are grieving or in crisis, he said. Lewis has also been a lay minister.
"We want family members to come to us in an environment that is conducive to sharing their personal stories," Lewis said. "The idea is for family members to view us like family and not staff."
The center provides support services to about 500 family members in 12 West Texas counties, including El Paso, and throughout New Mexico, he said.
The center also provides long-term support to an additional 25 to 30 family members who are survivors of retired military.
Family members who can use the center include surviving spouses, parents, siblings, children and fiancées.
The center includes a Wall of Honor, which consists of photos of fallen servicemembers that are provided by their families. There are about 50 photos hanging in the gallery.
"It serves as an alternate place where they can come and have a quiet time and reflection," Lewis said. "It's also a place where the community at large can pay honor."
The center has a small work station with a computer, fax machine, copier, scanner and printer. Family members can use the work area to do their administrative paperwork without having to leave the center, Lewis said.
The center helps set up appointments for grief counseling and has a monthly grief support group that meets on premises.
The program has been at Fort Bliss for about three years and was previously located in the Army Community Service building on Ricker Road.
The family center also publishes a quarterly newsletter and sponsors special events like a Christmas party it held in partnership with Operation Giveback. Gifts were provided to children of five families who had lost their servicemember, Lewis said.
It also issues special parking permits that family members can use for priority parking at the Exchange and the Commissary. The parking program will expand in the future and will likely include locations that provide services to these families, Lewis said.
In addition, SOS sends out commemorative cards on the anniversary of the servicemember's birthday and death to each surviving family member.
"Part of the intent is to say, 'The Army has not forgotten and we're here for them,'" Lewis said.
The SOS Family Center works closely with other agencies, including the Casualty Assistance Center at Fort Bliss.
This agency has first contact with families who have lost a servicemember, said Debra Rushbrook, supervisor with the Casualty Assistance Center.
This organization notifies families about the death of their loved one and assigns a casualty assistance officer to help with funeral arrangements and applying for benefits.
This help typically lasts 90 to 180 days, Rushbrook said. Then the families are handed over to the SOS Family Center, where they can receive long-term support, she said.
"It's a wonderful service for the families," Rushbrook said.
Blythe Hogeboom is a team leader for the Military Child Education Coalition's Fort Bliss Parent to Parent Program.
The group plans to have a literacy event called "Tell Me a Story" during the spring for families who have are receiving services at the center, Hogeboom said.
"These families are part of the greater military family," she said.
Lewis said this is an example of how the SOS Family Center works with other agencies.
"This is part of the Army's commitment to ensure that family members who experience the loss of their servicemember will continue to receive support and assistance as long as they desire," Lewis said. "This is a survivor-centric program, and the surviving family directs what kind of services they need."