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General: Bragg supports military widows

The Army has drastically increased its outreach and support for surviving spouses since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the commander of Fort Bragg said Wednesday.

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The Army has drastically increased its outreach and support for surviving spouses since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the commander of Fort Bragg said Wednesday.

Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, who also heads the XVIII Airborne Corps, said he still remembers the first time he served as a casualty assistance officer in 1994. One of his men was killed in a training accident in Italy, and they didn’t know how long the surviving spouse’s benefits would last or how long they could stay in military housing.

All that has changed with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since 2001, the military has increased the lump-sum payment to the beneficiaries of someone killed in action from $10,000 to $100,000. Also, a military widow can now keep military housing for one year and health care for three years after her husband's death.

“We have come magnitudes of difference (in the past decade) in how we’re taking care of the families of those killed,” Helmick said.

Military officials say 57 American service members have died in Afghanistan in July, including at least 13 Fort Bragg soldiers. The soldiers were from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team and the 20th Engineer Brigade’s 27th Engineer Battalion.

Fort Bragg has lost 371 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past nine years.

Col. Larry McCarty, who serves as a chaplain to the 82nd Airborne Division, said he has lost count of how many funerals and notifications he has done.

“It is one of the things that I have done that never gets easier. You become a part of someone’s worst nightmare,” McCarty said. “Spouses don’t always understand why you’re there. Sometimes, the grief and the shock is so severe that they just pack it away.”

Starr Whitten remembers getting the knock on her door and seeing the Army officer and chaplain at her door, telling her that her husband wasn't coming home from Afghanistan. Capt. Daniel Whitten was killed on Feb. 2 by a roadside bomb.

"I said, 'Well, what do you want?' and he said, 'Ma'am, could you please open the door?' and I was like, 'Nope,'" she said.

Whitten now says she appreciated the way the officer handled the situation.

"He did it with grace and poise. He did a great job," she said.

Fort Bragg is one of 35 casualty assistance centers in the Army and handles all soldiers killed in North Carolina. The center helps a soldier’s family with paperwork and benefits and trains officers to help families and break the news of a soldier’s death.

All soldiers sergeant first class and above must go through the two-day training so they can help the families of fallen comrades.

"Two days is enough for that. You can make it longer, but nothing is going to prepare you emotionally for what you go through with different families when you notify," said Sgt. First-Class Felix Serra. “It is one of the hardest duties I have to do."

Besides training casualty assistance officers, Fort Bragg has created volunteer care and comfort support teams to help widows with everything from walking the dog to washing dishes and has built a support center dedicated to surviving spouses.

The post has almost 2,000 surviving spouses, parents and children in its database and has formed the Fort Bragg Survivor Outreach Services to help widows find a community where they feel comfortable.

McCarty said the job of the comfort teams is "just to hold the spouses close."

Whitten said an Army officer has eased her burden for the past few months.

"He was there every step of the way – showed up, brought a Bible, helped my parents plan. He was unbelievable," she said.



Bryan Mims, Reporter
Michael Joyner, Photographer
Matthew Burns, Web Editor

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