Gold Star Spouses’ Day, April 5, honors the widows and widowers of military members who died in combat while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, and U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz continues to recognize and support them all year through the Survivor Outreach Services program.
For Gold Star Spouse Inge Colton, April 5 is always significant.
“It’s important because it’s a day that not only honors us [Gold Star Spouses], but it honors the loved ones we lost,” she said. “For me, that day remembers Shane, and by remembering Shane, you remember all the other spouses and the children left behind.”
Colton, whose husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lawrence “Shane” Colton, died when his attack helicopter was shot down in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004, relies on the garrison’s SOS program for support, information and services whenever she needs assistance.
“I was a military wife —that’s all I knew,” said Colton, who spent most of her adult life on or around military installations. “And when this type of thing happens, the units are there for you at first, but after a while, they just go away.”
After she moved to the Kaiserslautern area, she connected with the USAG RP’s Army Community Service SOS program.
“SOS is there for all survivors every step of the way,” said Shannon Vaughan, Kaiserslautern SOS coordinator. “From the initial news of losing a loved one, to getting their affairs in order and throughout the entire grieving process.”
The program also helps survivors connect with local resources to obtain information or solve issues, Colton said.
“Last year, I had to change something through the Veterans Administration, and with the time difference in Germany, trying to get a hold of someone in the States can be aggravating because you are on the phone for a long time waiting for someone to help you,” she explained. SOS helped her contact a local VA representative for assistance. “I’m glad that I can ask for help at SOS, and what makes it awesome is if you can’t reach them in their office, they will come to you. Here, you meet with people who really love what they do and go out of their way to help you.”
SOS hosts two annual events for Gold Star Survivors as well as several other activities for all survivors throughout the year. There is also a monthly support group and events throughout the garrison that survivors can take part in, Vaughan said.
“Losing a loved one is something no one ever wants to experience. I feel honored and privileged to be a part of this a wonderful group of people,” she said. “Through their tragedy and sacrifice to our nation, these survivors have such huge and accepting hearts. They can find a way to brighten anyone’s day.”
The SOS program resonates with Colton, because she was on the board of directors in a similar program in Killeen, Texas — Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors or HUGSS. HUGSS was the pilot program for the Army’s SOS program today.
“At that time, HUGSS was run by volunteers — Army wives, widows and Purple Heart recipients — who volunteered their time to get information out,” Colton recalled. “We were all very vocal then and reached out to other survivors who needed help.”
At first, the group was only for spouses, and one of the chief complaints at the time was the program didn’t include children, she said.
“We wanted a program for anyone who lost a Soldier — all encompassing, because a loss is a loss no matter how you lost your Soldier,” she said. “That is what we focused on, and I’m very proud of that. So, when I see today’s SOS program, I know I was a part of its history.”
This year Colton won’t be attending the garrison’s Gold Star Spouses’ Day event, because she will be in Killeen, Texas, visiting Shane’s final resting place.
“Knowing that I would be in Texas, Kaiserslautern SOS contacted the program in Fort Hood program to include me in their events,” Colton said. “That is how awesome this SOS office is — that they would contact another SOS office because I wasn’t going to be here.”
Being there for those who’ve lost military loved ones is what SOS is all about, Vaughan said.
“Whether a service member is killed in action or dies after retirement, SOS is a loving and caring community that will accept you with open arms,” she said. “Being the Survivor Outreach Services coordinator is one of the most challenging and rewarding positions I have ever held. It taught me to be humble, patient, understanding, and above all, made me into a better and more caring person.”