WASHINGTON (NNS) -- Anniversaries can celebrate special milestones and happy events in our lives, but they can also be times when we remember more somber occasions.
March was a tough month for Navy widow Monika Hagalid-Drag. This year would have marked a 15th wedding anniversary to her husband, Cmdr. Matthew Drag. She and her daughter, Isabella, both celebrate birthdays, and Isabella became a teen this year. March 2 is the anniversary of Matthew Drag's burial at sea.
October is another difficult month. It's when Cmdr. Drag celebrated his birth - and the same month family and friends mourned his death. He would have turned 40 last year.
The Navy Gold Star Program is a new, comprehensive program designed for families of service members who die while on active duty. The program provides a level of long-term assistance and support not previously available to these family members. The mission of the Gold Star Program is to deliver services to survivors using a "holistic" approach.
The program offers 18 dedicated coordinators throughout the continental United States and Hawaii. These coordinators help ensure survivors know they are not forgotten, and continue to remain a part of the Navy family. They help survivors build resiliency and support through their grief journey and as they work to find a new "normal."
Part of that help includes connecting them with support groups and grief counseling as well as providing life skills education. Gold Star serves as a resource for information and referrals from both government and nongovernmental organizations, including chaplain care, school liaison and assistance, and family member employment. The staff also connects survivors with financial counselors who are committed to helping them create a solid foundation for financial success, and can offer education on budgeting, investing, estate planning and tax issues.
Those eligible to receive support through the Gold Star Program include the service member's widow or widower, parents (including mother, father, stepparents, foster parents and those who stood in loco parentis of the service member), and next of kin (defined as children, including stepchildren, brothers, sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters.) The Navy Gold Star Program strives to ensure all family members receive the assistance they need and that the Navy's promise of lasting support is fulfilled.
Monika was introduced to Gold Star when material sent to her in Hawaii was forwarded to her new home in Washington, D.C. Patsy Jackson, the Installation Navy Gold Star coordinator, contacted Monika and assessed her needs and concerns. As a result, Patsy connected Monika to the Military and Family Support Center at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling where she met with Patricia Botkins, the Family Employment and Volunteer Program (FERP) coordinator. Monika is Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling's first Gold Star Program family member.
"Patricia has been great," Monika said. "I learned so much at the spouse workshop she coordinated. It opened my eyes to returning to school, and how I can receive assistance through the process."
Monika, a native of Sweden, decided to make the District of Columbia home in large part due to the military friends who live in the area. She pointed out that returning to school for a second master's degree will help her become more employable, and is exploring what she wants to do in the future. She acknowledged that she needs flexibility while her daughter is in school.
"She needs me, and I'm it - 24/7," Monika pointed out. "I'm not a single mom who shares custody with a former husband. My family is in Sweden and most of my in-laws live in Michigan.
"She's a great kid, and very thoughtful person. She and her father were extremely tight," Monika reminisced. "That's the hard part... She's a lot like him."
Pamela Valliere is the Regional Navy Gold Star coordinator for Naval District Washington - and a Gold Star mom. She has been with the program since August of last year, and likens the development of the program to a paint project. "It takes a lot of time and prep work," she explained. "Before the first coat, you must sand, tape, trim and prime."
She and Jackson are concentrating on reaching out to Gold Star family members, and educating the military community on the program. They work closely with all the Family Service Centers in providing financial information, life skills assistance and employment opportunities among other things.
"Leadership has been incredibly supportive," Valliere said. "We have had such a positive response from the military community."
Valliere pointed out that this is especially great since the program has very little to do with the Sailor, but everything to do with his or her family. Valliere knows firsthand what it's like to be such a family member. She lost her son Tony, who was a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, to a motorcycle accident in 2008.
"As the wife of a naval aviator, you prepare yourself for the possibility of a chaplain knocking on your door. I was a Navy wife, and ready for anything," she reflected. "I wasn't in that frame of mind in regards to my son, who was a student preparing to be a Marine officer, when that knock on the door occurred." From that experience "I do have an understanding of what Gold Star families are going through," she said, "but every survivor's experience is unique."
Valliere said that after Tony's death, she needed support and wanted to remain connected to the military. She began volunteering for the Navy-Marine Corp Relief Society. From there she worked in Family Readiness, both in the active and reserve Navy, and built her skills in program management that she utilizes with the Gold Star Program.
Valliere and Jackson have found that it's very helpful for these families to get together, and noted that it's fortunate that people in this region are in close proximity with each other compared to other parts of the country. They have initiated monthly "Dining Outs," rotating the location throughout Naval District Washington.
"A deep connection happens at those meetings," Jackson said. "Stories are told and pictures are shared. This is about survivors assisting survivors, and we're here to support them. The families love it, and they are excited we are here."
The program is required to reach out to all who are identified at least once a year. Valliere said that they come when they have the need, and that Gold Star can serve as a good liaison between families, the VA and other government agencies in assisting with paperwork.
A casualty assistance calls officer (CACO) is assigned to work with a service member's family immediately upon his or her death. It becomes that person's full time job. "We can relieve the casualty officer to return to his regular job with the military once their job as CACO is done," she explained. "We're here for a lifetime, until that family member no longer needs us."
"Do we want to do more? You bet," she resounded. "The primer coat is on and we're excited to see what the first coat of paint will look like!"
To learn more about the Gold Star Program visit the Navy Gold Star Program website: www.goldstar.com. For Naval District Washington information and events contact the regional coordinator at 202-433-3171 or the installation coordinator at 202-433-3055.
For more news from Naval District Washington, visit www.navy.mil/local/ndw/.