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'Virtual Installations' May Be Key to Gold Star Outreach

Donna Miles, Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs

ROCHESTER, N.Y., - 09.14.2009

Army Strong Community Centers like the one that officially opened here over the weekend are dedicated to serving families who live far from the closest military base.

But they also can help the Army in its efforts to stay in touch with and provide better support for Gold Star families -- those who have lost loved ones in combat.

That's the conclusion Army Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz said he made before the, Sept. 12, ribbon-cutting ceremony here, when he met with the parents of three local service members killed in Iraq.

Stultz acknowledged the families' sacrifice during his official remarks at the ceremony, calling the new "virtual installation" here a way for the Army to live up to its warrior ethos as it reaches out to families of the fallen.

"Our warrior ethos is that we will never leave a fallen comrade," he said. "But we will also never leave a fallen comrade's family. That's why we are here."

Maintaining contact with these families hasn't always been easy, Stultz acknowledged, particularly because spouses typically move away from the base where their loved one was stationed. But he said he plans to propose the new centers as the key to the issue that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. has been seeking.

"One of the messages I am going to go back to General Casey with is, I may have a solution," Stultz told American Forces Press Service. "Our Army Community Strong Centers can be part of your support network for your Gold Star families in the community."

The Rochester Army Strong Community Center is the first community-based center of its kind. It's resourced and staffed to deliver military families the information, services and support they'd have to drive to a major military base to find. Stultz and his wife, Laura, who championed the idea to fill a gap she experienced personally during his various deployments, hope to see the centers become as commonplace as local post offices.

The concept initially was meant to support families of deployed Army reservists. But Stultz said it's already proving valuable here for families of active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as well.

Three Gold Star families told him at the center's official ribbon cutting this weekend that they see it as a resource for them, too. "When I talked to them about what we are doing here, tears literally rolled down their faces," Stultz said. "They said, 'That's what we really need. We need somewhere we can go.'"

Keith and Mary Ellen Schramm of Greece, N.Y.; Dan and Rita Hasenauer of Hilton, N.Y.; and Rob Lyons of Brighton, N.Y., all share the tragedy of losing a loved one in combat. And all live hundreds, even thousands of miles, from the units where their sons were based.

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Brian K. Schramm, 22, died Oct. 15, 2004, in Iraq's Babil province. He was assigned to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force's 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Twenty-one-year-old Army Pfc. Jason D. Hasenauer died near Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Dec. 28, 2005, when his Humvee accidentally rolled over during a patrol. Hasenauer was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's 504th Parachute Regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Army 1st Lt. James N. Lyons, 28, died Sept. 27, 2006, in Baghdad, after enemy forces attacked his mounted patrol. He was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division's 12th Infantry Regiment at Fort Hood, Texas.

The Lyons, Schramms and Hasenauers all reported great support from their casualty assistance officers after their sons were killed. What they said they're lacking now is a way to stay tied to the military their sons died serving, and to get information and help when they need it.

Until now, they said, they've relied mainly on each other.

Lyons told Stultz he doesn't know anyone at Fort Hood, his late son's post, hasn't talked by phone to anyone there, and doesn't know who he would call if he wanted to. He traveled there on his own to visit the memorials to his son and other Fort Hood soldiers killed in the wars.

Dan Hasenauer shared with American Forces Press Service that he told Stultz he sought counseling to deal with the grief of losing his son. But he never felt comfortable with the counselor, who didn't understand the military or what he was going through.

The Schramms tried one session of family counseling through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but said they didn't find it helpful for their three children: one was bitterly angry over his brother's death, and the other two "shut right down," Mary Ellen Schramm said.

"One place that seems to be lacking was support for siblings, especially teenagers," her husband said. "They are a hard group to get to. But they take it as hard as the parents do."

In addition to the intense emotional aspects of their losses, two of the families said they struggled with other procedural and policy roadblocks.

Jason Hasenauer and James Lyons both planned to marry when they returned from their deployments. Hasenauer's fiancée gave birth three weeks before he was killed, leaving her to navigate the military health care system for their daughter on her own and without the benefit of a military identification card. Lyons had to call his son's fiancée to break the news of his death and complained that she was "almost invisible" to the Army because she wasn't his wife.

While not knowing exactly how much the new Army Strong Community Center will be able to address their specific issues, the families agreed they're happy there's now a new resource in their community where they can turn for understanding and caring support.

"From what we have heard, the bases have good resources. But if you're not at a base, or once you have left a base, you lose any connection you had," Schramm said. "That's why something like this center here is so valuable. It fills a big gap."

But Stultz said he was particularly inspired by one parent's motivation to reconnect with the military through the new Army Strong Community Center.

"One of the mothers said, 'We have a Gold Star group here and we want to help soldiers, but we don't know where to go,'" Stultz said. "She said, 'I lost my son, but I still want to give back.' Now, that's pretty inspiring."

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