For many, Valentine’s Day is a swirl of red and pink decorations, candies, flowers, cards and meals that celebrate loving relationships and intimate bonds. For the families involved in Survivor Outreach Services in Rochester, New York, this day is just one more reminder of what they have lost.
Supported by Family Programs staff, two chaplains and each other, the survivors came together February 11 to create projects memorializing their journey as part of the Operation Love Letter event.
Started in Orlando, Fl., Operation Love Letter is a program created to honor fallen Soldiers, their surviving family members and the bonds they still share.
Intended as a time of celebration rather than a time of mourning, the annual February event serves as an opportunity for survivors to gather together, share memories and know that there are others who understand exactly what they are going through.
“I believe they (the survivors) have cried enough,” explained Lora Taylor, 75th Training Command Survivor Outreach Services support coordinator. “I want them to do things that is going to make them laugh and have great memories of their Soldier.”
As the group members shared stories, memories and refreshments, the adults participated in a resiliency project based on a drawing of a house that chronicled their grief journey. Meanwhile, the children created pillowcases celebrating their Soldier.
Dan Hasenauer, a Gold Star dad, is passionate about ensuring others know that they aren’t alone in their journey.
“When we lose a Soldier in the area we go to the funerals and contact the families,” Dan said as he explained his mission to let all Gold Star Families that there are others out there.
“We work with all the new Gold star moms and dads or husbands and wives,” Dan explained. The SOS program is critical for Dan and his wife.
“It means everything, that we’re still being part of the military,” he said. “Everyone here is in the same boat, or as we call it, ‘the club you don’t want to join’ and it’s good because we get together and laugh. We have a good time. If someone needs help with something there’s always others out there… we kind of make it a big family.”
For Jennifer Hansen, Gold Star wife and mother to Michael, a self-proclaimed “seven and three quarter” year old, these events are critical.
“It’s really important to me because my son wasn’t old enough to remember his dad,” she explained. “It’s always important that we continue to honor him and make him an everyday part of our life, particularly around any time like holidays or anniversaries.”
As part of the Operation Love Letter event, Child and Youth Services was on hand with craft supplies to create custom pillowcases, a project Michael threw himself into whole-heartedly.
“I drew a couple not real battles,” Michael said, pointing out various sections on his pillowcase. “I drew Star Wars, because I love Star Wars, and also I drew the bombing that happened to my dad. I drew a bunch of funny things because I like funny things, but then when I heard people saying you have to draw something about your dad, I took notice and I drew something about my dad,” he explained.
Jennifer was startled when Michael brought his creation to her for her approval.
“I wasn’t ready for that,” she admitted. “Michael is inquisitive and he wants to know what happened and why it happened. He wants to be able to express that to his friends and people he meets, and other Veterans he meets. So I find it valuable that he knows so basically. He drew the battle scene that I didn’t know he had in him. And it’s accurate, which is even scarier.”
Seven year old Michael Hansen begins work on his memorial pillowcase during the annual Operation Love Letter event in Rochester, New York. Michael’s artwork included not only scenes from Star Wars, but also his interpretation of the tower attack in which his father was killed. U.S. Army Reserve photo by Sgt. 1st Class Lisa M. Litchfield/released
Michael was matter of fact about his project.
“I think I’ll like the pillowcase a bunch – it looks cool!” he said. “I think he [my dad] is a hero and I think he also sacrificed himself in the tower. He saved five or four people.”
For families who know the pain of losing a loved one, Operation Love Letter, and Survivor Outreach Services are a vital piece in the “new normal.”
“As a Gold Star spouse, you are already isolated from the rest of the world,” Jennifer explained. “This is your only safe pocket where you can just be yourself, that it’s ok. You have that scarlet letter and it’s a good one to everybody else. You don’t have those jaw-dropping moments where no one knows what to say to you and the constant apologies for something they had no control over and you don’t have to repeat your story every two seconds. They get it. They know. And they laugh and joke with you. It’s nice because you don’t have to worry about offending them and you don’t have to worry about being offended, and I think that’s the most valuable part – you don’t get many opportunities like that. You don’t get the chance to just kind of decompress and say ‘this week was hard and this is why’ and it’s ok to be crying – as much as it is to be laughing,” she concluded.
Operation Love Letter is just one piece of the Survivor Outreach Program that also provides long term case management, assistance with benefits and entitlements, and financial assistance for survivors as well as emotional support services. For more information on local support service across the 108th Training Command (IET) contact Family Programs coordination Denise Wallace at 704-342-5128 or firstname.lastname@example.org.