The Air Force hosted its first Gold Star and Surviving Family Members Summit at the Air Force Enlisted Village, Shalimar, Florida, April 30.
The event, supported by the Air Force Families Forever Program, focused on enduring support for Gold Star and Surviving family members.
“So many of you, even in your grief, have shown us what it means to be resilient, to create post traumatic growth, to take life’s challenges and meet them head on by creating awareness,” said Dawn Goldfein, spouse of the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. “Today is about sharing, listening and inspiring. My husband and I cannot thank you enough for being here and for your willingness to share your ideas, stories and your heart.”
Surviving family members from the local area were invited to attend the event. They provided insight on how the program has helped them and how the Air Force can continue to support surviving families in the future.
“We are here to share information, to listen and advance the support for Gold Star and Surviving Family Members,” said Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, Air Force Manpower, Personnel and Services deputy chief of staff.
It was an intimate setting, with fewer than 40 surviving family members in attendance. They shared special memories of their loved ones and met and talked with leadership about their experiences as a surviving family member. For those unable to attend, there was an opportunity to take part virtually during a Facebook live question and answer session with a panel of subject matter experts from the Air Force Families Forever and Casualty Affairs programs, Office of the Secretary of Defense and Veterans Affairs Office of Survivors Assistance, as well as several Gold Star members.
“Providing this event to surviving families is an important step in the right direction as we continue to strengthen the Air Force Families Forever program,” said Peggy Haldeman, Airman and Family Readiness policy analyst. “Our goal is to take the feedback we received, review our policies and see how we can continue to build a gold standard program for the Air Force.”
Throughout the day, families echoed sentiments of how important it is to not only be around other surviving family members, but to continue to speak the names of their fallen Airmen. Events such as these help foster the goals to enhance support of surviving families.
There were three breakout sessions specific to parents, spouses and children of fallen Airmen. The sessions fostered discussions among surviving family members and provided comfort to each other as they shared experiences and talked through their individual needs as survivors and how best to keep their fallen heroes’ spirit alive. The consensus among survivors was that it’s invaluable to have support from each other, but also from the branch of service their fallen service member served.
“My favorite part of the event was meeting other Gold Star adult children,” said Jaclyn Mariano, daughter of Air Force Master Sgt. Jude Mariano, killed in action in 2004. “They gave me hope.”
Mariano is a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors mentor to other children of fallen service members and her experiences as a survivor have encouraged her to pursue her medical degree in psychiatry, specializing in children with special needs.
The Air Force Families Forever program, established in 2010, ensures survivors of fallen Airmen receive specific support at varying touchpoints after an Airman’s passing. Support is provided in the form of information and referral resources and connection to installation functions.
“You are Air Force Families forever, that’s our commitment to you,” said Kelly.
The summit participants included survivors of Airmen who died while on active duty. This includes Gold Star survivors whose Airmen died during combat or terrorist activities as well as those who died in peacetime.
“You are part of a military family, with an uncommon bond, one that has been strengthened through your shared experiences, your compassion and your tears,” Goldfein said. “You have raised our awareness and we will raise our standards. You are our Air Force family forever. We remember.”
For more information about the program, visit Air Force Families Forever.