With another phone line on hold and an ever expanding to-do list, Debbie Busch listened patiently to yet another bereaved parent who called Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center for guidance.
"And which unit did your son serve with?" she asked, then paused to listen. "OK, well I'm glad you're going for counseling. Are you going through Military One Source so you don't have to pay for it?" The answer was no. "We're gonna change that right now. Hold on a minute."
Busch, an Army wife and mother of three, founded the nonprofit Helping to Unite Gold Star Survivors, or HUGS, in 2003 to provide the loved ones of slain soldiers with support groups, summer camps and phone calls during difficult times such as birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. Six years later, after creating what's become a national model for the care of grieving military families, Busch worries she and her tiny staff may soon have to close because of lack of funding.
"Since the summer we just haven't had a lot of support. Donations have slowed to a trickle," says Busch, who in recent months set up regular support groups for Dallas-Fort Worth families. "We're having a hard time. I don't know if it's the economy, or if maybe people are just tired of hearing about all this stuff."
It's true the war against terror has recently taken a backseat to the nation's economic woes. Yet even as talk turns to bank bailouts and a phased withdrawal from Iraq, pulling troops out of that country is expected to take at least two years, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has announced a ramp-up of American forces in Afghanistan. With nearly 5,000 military families already grieving for fallen soldiers and more casualties certain to come, the need for HUGS' services is sure to hold steady even as charitable contributions are harder to come by in the midst of a recession.
Though HUGS began at Fort Hood, the country's largest Army base and the one that has sustained the highest number of casualties, the organization reaches out to hundreds of families across the country and has started satellite groups at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Lewis, Washington. Busch, whose husband, a sergeant major, recently returned from Afghanistan and whose son is serving in Iraq, started the group after noticing that Army widows weren't receiving adequate support.
"They don't just lose their soldiers," she says. "They lose their entire way of life." Widows often find themselves cut off from social networks such as the Family Readiness Group, unit-by-unit organizations that provide a sense of community and information about deployed soldiers' whereabouts. Many widows report being shunned by other wives, as if losing a husband were contagious, and some say other wives act threatened by them, worried the single women will seduce their husbands.
As Busch worked with a small group of volunteers—and later, staffers—to establish a place where widows could come to kick back and share their feelings with others who understood their pain, she realized that the parents, in-laws, siblings and other loved ones of slain soldiers were just as much in need of care. Her database of families rapidly expanded. She also got involved in the training of casualty assistance officers, who are responsible for notifying families of soldiers' deaths and helping them sort through benefits and paperwork. When the war began, they only received four hours of training, and Busch heard stories of brusque death notifications and botched paperwork. She talked with Army higher-ups, and now, largely because of the Gold Star Center's efforts, assistance officers receive 40 hours of training, including testimonials from widows and other family members. HUGS was also active in the lobbying that in 2005 led Congress to raise the Army's "death tax"—the amount a surviving family receives—from $12,000 to $100,000, as well as increasing the life insurance payout from $250,000 to $400,000.
"The HUGS program has been tremendously successful," says Major Jay Adams, an Army spokesman based at Fort Hood. "It's really remarkable how well it's been received by the survivors and how important it's been for them to have a place where they can get together with others who understand how they're feeling."
Busch estimates her ideal annual budget to cover travel expenses and supplies for the support groups, phone banks and family camps like the one they held in Gun Barrel City this year for Mother's Day, at $300,000. "We've never really hit that," she says, though they've covered costs through an $118,000 grant from the Dallas Foundation and smaller contributions from other groups, corporations and individuals. The Army provides the center's building at Fort Hood rent-free, but Busch doesn't expect another significant cash influx until the end of 2009's first quarter, and she's concerned about the nonprofit's ability to provide services until then, given dwindling reserves. "We need about $16,000 to get through the next few months until March," she says.
To make matters worse, the already small staff of four recently shrunk by half when the public relations specialist went on maternity leave and another woman moved to Fort Lewis after her husband was transferred. Busch says she needs to write more grant proposals, but that's difficult while understaffed.
"Pretty soon, we're all going to be back to volunteers," she says. "We have wonderful people here, but we need to earn a living."
Meanwhile, the Army in October unveiled plans for a new program called Survivor Outreach Services, which would add staffers to casualty assistance centers nationwide. General George Casey, the Army's chief of staff, invited Busch and other HUGS staffers to attend an October meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss the proposed new positions and how the nonprofit could partner with them. However, Busch worries that SOS still has not been fully funded, and given the worsening economy, it might not be anytime soon.
Army spokesmen said that as far as they knew at press time, the program had been funded and is set to begin offering services in the coming months. However, Busch points out that the SOS start date has been postponed from November to January and says that according to Army Community Services, the program's funding has been mandated, but not yet allocated.
"I would hate for us to shut down and then have SOS never start," Busch says.
Alex Aguayo, a pastor at Maplewood Baptist Church in North Richland Hills who lost his son-in-law, Sergeant Jonathan A. Markham, to a roadside bomb in Iraq 18 months ago, says he hopes that doesn't happen. He has participated in the monthly support groups since his church began hosting them in May. (He was introduced to the group by his daughter, Markham's wife.)
"When we sat down and Debbie said whatever we said would stay with the group, boy, did I open up," he says. "I'd been holding it in for almost a year." Talking with church friends was difficult because most didn't relate to his loss, comparing it to their divorces or the deaths of parents. One man told him that based on the national mourning period for Abraham in the Bible, he should mourn only 30 days for the death that made his only daughter a 22-year-old widow and single mother.
"HUGS has given me a way to grieve the right way," Aguayo says. "As a pastor, you're supposed to have all the answers, but it's not like that." The holidays are especially hard, he adds. "It's neat to be able to go into a room with people who are going through the same thing," he says. "I don't see how people did it before, without the group."
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To contact the organization or to make a donation, call 254-288-6728/254-553-2464 or mail to:
P.O. Box 5773
Ft. Hood, TX 76544