JULY 21, 2015, VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (NNS) – The unthinkable happens. Sailors lose their lives. Family members must pick up the pieces, then try to move on. They may not know it, but they are not alone. The Navy started the Gold Star Program to provide long-term support to surviving families of Sailors who pass while on active duty.
Launched last year, the Navy Gold Star (NGS) program provides Gold Star families – families that have lost a Sailor while on active duty – a level of long-term assistance and support not previously available through the Navy. There are also new NGS region and installation coordinators, who are on hand locally to help coordinate the long-term care needed for surviving family members.
“I’m very proud of the steps we’re taking to embrace our Gold Star Family Program,” said Capt. Louis Schager, commanding officer, Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana. “I think it’s a long time coming and Oceana’s excited to include the Gold Star Program into our Naval Air Station Oceana Air Show this fall.”
Samantha Blackwell, a tall woman with a flower perpetually pinned in her hair and a ready hug for everyone she meets, is the Gold Star coordinator on Oceana. Working out of Fleet and Family Services, she is responsible for finding and contacting surviving family members in the area to let them know there’s a program that can help them.
“As a Navy Gold Star coordinator, my typical day is anything but routine,” she said. “Because the program is new, I spend time building case files and doing case/database management. Also, I may spend a good portion of my day talking to survivors seeking assistance on a range of topics, from benefits to Gold Star events. In many instances, these phone calls or visits require research to identify benefits specific to the survivor’s circumstances, [or] engaging organizations at the local/state/national level to provide assistance or services to survivors. My day is anything but ‘typical’ and I love it.”
Part of her job as Gold Star coordinator is to organize events for surviving family members in the area where they can meet other Gold Star families.
“My most successful event is our most recent event,” Blackwell said. “For May, that would be the Poetry Reading and Children’s Story-Time event. We were also able to have Gold Star families participate in Warrior Week and the Patriotic Festival through collaborating with USO of Hampton Roads and Central Virginia. Because the program is so new, we are continuing to identify creative, innovative ways to connect with and engage our survivors and our military/civilian community. Stay tuned, more events are on the horizon.”
Personnel eligible to participate in the NGS program include the widow, parents and the next of kin of the deceased. The term “widow” includes widower. The term “parents” includes mother, father, stepmother, stepfather, mother through adoption, father through adoption, and foster parents who stood in loco parentis. The term “next of kin” only includes children, brothers, sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters. The term “children” includes stepchildren and children through adoption.
Although the program is less than a year old, Blackwell said it’s still hard to hear from survivors who have been struggling.
“The most difficult part of my job is hearing a survivor state ‘I wish I’d known about you sooner.’ That usually means the survivor has had to walk through some difficult times alone without an advocate, without knowledge specific to survivors, without benefits or entitlements,” she said. “It means the survivor has endured living without their loved one’s presence or any significant recognition/remembrance of their loss. It also means awareness of and knowledge about the program lacking. However, the newness of the program means it will take time to get NGS [progam’s] presence known and the community familiar with it.”
Blackwell’s goals for the Oceana NGS program are tied to surviving family members getting recognition for the sacrifices their families have made.
“I want Oceana to know what the Gold Star and next of kin of deceased personnel lapel pins mean,” she added. “When the Oceana community sees a Gold Star license plate on a vehicle, they will understand the significance of that plate’s meaning. When personnel are accessing the commissary, medical/dental, NEX, and MWR facilities, they will understand the meaning behind that parking space reserved for Gold Star family members.”