Ten-year-old Lea Gibbs was still awake in bed the night the Army chaplain and the casualty officer came by her father's house. The men offered no gentle talk of sacrifice, no quiet prayers. All Lea heard as she came out of her bedroom was the screaming of her step-mom: "Your daddy's dead! Your daddy's dead!" The following day, Lea's mother, Heidi Litherland, began seeking grief counseling for her daughter. "We don't handle that, Ma'am," Litherland says she was told when she contacted the base hospital at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. The hospital shuffled Litherland off to Army social services, but they didn't handle counseling, either: instead, they told her to go to a base clinic to get an assessment of the girl's emotional state. "Her dad just died! What kind of frickin' assessment do you need?" Litherland fumed. She managed to get a list of local private counselors from an Army chaplain, but none could take Lea: their waiting lists were too long. It took five months before she finally saw someone.
The Army has never been very good at talking about death--especially when it comes to children. But with a fighting force that is increasingly made up of parents--43.5 percent of all service people have children--the U.S. military is realizing it needs to offer more to grieving families than a folded flag and a package of death benefits. The number of American children who've lost parents in Iraq and Afghanistan now stands at more than 1,200--a figure roughly equal to the number of widows and widowers, according to the Pentagon. Yet casualty officers--those soldiers who deliver the news every military family hopes never to hear--have no training in counseling, beyond a standardized handbook that encourages them to act as natural as possible and exercise common sense and sensitivity. In fact, there has never been a uniform approach to family "bereavement care" in the U.S. military: experiences vary from branch to branch and base to base. Now some military families are pushing for change--and the Pentagon is starting to listen. "Many feel that the Army family has let them down," explains Debbie Busch, an Army officer's wife who is helping to turn Fort Hood, the nation's largest military base, into a test case for reform.
The changes at Fort Hood are already helping fatherless kids like Lea, now 11. On a recent afternoon at a local soldiers' hospitality center, Lea is laughing with other girls from the base as she sits at a table and works on her art project: a brown and olive "memory box," where she can finally store the letters she keeps writing to her dad, even though a roadside bomb killed him more than a year ago in Iraq. "That's how it is with kids. They mourn in spurts," says Erin Pounders, Lea's counselor at this one-day "grief camp," which Busch helped organize, along with Texas hospice workers. The children sing songs and play games, but the songs are about their dads and the games are designed to draw out memories. The day ends with a candlelight vigil and a color guard; Lea seems drawn to the soldiers, and she chats happily with them. To see her now, you'd never imagine that she struggled with chronic headaches and stomach pains after her dad died, or that she wouldn't talk about his passing or much of anything else. For a while, she couldn't even cry. "It hurt too bad," she says.
The military has always relied on the volunteer efforts of officers' wives like Busch to do their grief counseling. And back when most soldiers were single, or when the nation wasn't at war, that worked just fine. But the needs today are greater. Busch was amazed to find that when a friend lost her husband in Iraq, she was basically cut loose emotionally. "Once the ceremony is over and the flag's been handed to you, people stop calling," says Busch, an Army wife of 24 years who's been fortunate enough never to be on the receiving end of one of those flags.
As Busch heard stories from the widows of Fort Hood, she began lobbying for better training of casualty-assistance officers and a full-time bereavement officer who would work with each family until they get back on their feet. But even the small changes she was advocating fell on deaf ears--until the commander in chief himself visited with families at Fort Hood last April. The families weren't shy about telling President George W. Bush their plight, and he wasn't shy about telling the top brass to listen up. Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey got the message: calling flaws in the Army's bereavement program "unacceptable," he ordered an evaluation last September, and the service has just begun to implement reforms. Some insiders acknowledge that the Army has let grieving families down, especially when it comes to children. But publicly, the Army is more circumspect. "If a family is angered or hurt because of something that happened, we will try to fix it. We want to fix it. But some things you can't take back," says Col. Mary Torgersen, director of the U.S. Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center.
Harvey has already added $7 million to this year's budget for casualty assistance, and the branch plans to overhaul officer training (at Fort Hood, the officers now receive a full week of training--including a day spent with hospice workers--rather than the standard three hours). The Army is also computerizing the labyrinth of death benefits for families. And as of this month, commanders will be required to check in with families by phone one week after a soldier's death. (Fort Hood's top general has told commanders to write a personal letter to their slain soldier's family and to send a videotape of the memorial service in Iraq.) Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office has been studying the Fort Hood reforms for a report on military bereavement care, which is due in Congress in July.
The hope is that these changes will result in the military's paying more attention--not just to grieving spouses, but to their kids. "The children have often been the forgotten mourners," explains Vicki Jay, executive director of Rays of Hope, a children's grief center in Texas, who volunteered to run Fort Hood's grief camp. The key, says Jay, is to talk frankly with kids about death. That's what Stacy Pintor of Utah has been doing with her 5-year-old daughter, Rhea. Pintor, who is attending this month's grief camp, explained to her daughter that her father had died like Mufasa in "The Lion King." "I have forced myself from day one to talk about him because she needs to know her daddy, as much as that hurts me," Pintor says. For Rhea, and so many like her, that is how the healing can begin.