FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Dec. 14, 2021) – With the holiday season in full swing, people are purchasing gifts and finalizing plans to gather with friends and family to celebrate and relax.
This typically joyful time of year can also be tough for those who have lost a significant loved one, but Fort Leonard Wood’s Survivor Outreach Services has a particular program in place to help ensure survivors can honor their departed service member over the holidays.
Throughout December, the Angel Bell Remembrance Tree sits in the lobby of the Army Community Service building. First installed by SOS Coordinator Jody Carmack in 2012, the 10-foot tree is now covered in more than 700 hand-made ornaments, each decoration designed to highlight the life and service of a particular loved one.
“The survivors choose each year whether or not they want an ornament on the tree,” Carmack said. “If they do, we allow them the opportunity to come and hang their own ornament. They can also come and make their own ornament here and hang it.”
Carmack said she typically sees an uptick in survivor visits around the holidays, so the tree idea “just makes sense.”
“The holidays are a time for families to gather together, share laughs, traditions and extra warm love, but when you are missing one of the people your world revolved around, it can be a particularly difficult time,” she said. “Whether it is your first or 21st holiday season without your loved one, that same stabbing pain is in your heart. Sometimes you might feel like your friends and family don’t want to hear about it again, so it’s important to have a place that welcomes your hurt feelings and broken heart on your terms and helps you to honor your loved one — one time or 100 times.”
Each year, Carmack comes up with a new design idea for a paper ornament with a military theme, and then she calls on a small, dedicated team of retiree survivors to help make the ornaments.
“(The retiree survivors) enjoy doing that,” she said. “I call in a legion of them every year to help me mass-produce the ones for people who can’t travel here, but who still want an ornament on the tree.”
Two survivors stopped by ACS on Friday to hang their ornaments. Lois Robbins and Kathryn Rushing each moved to the Fort Leonard Wood area with their service member husbands in the 1960s. They’ve known each other for more than 50 years, and they’ve been neighbors in and around Dixon, Missouri, all that time.
Rushing said having someone around who understands the loss of a spouse helps a lot.
“You have someone who knows what you’re going through,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh, I know what you’re going through.’ No, they don’t. Until they’ve lost a spouse, they don’t know what you have to endure. Everything is dropped on you — you have to take care of everything. If the car breaks down, you have to do that. If the house needs painting, you have to do that.”
Robbins, who lost her husband — retired 1st Sgt. Billie Robbins — in April 2019, said she enjoys staying connected with the Army and Fort Leonard Wood through the SOS program.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Jody is so good about doing things, helping us.”
It’s important to have a program like this, Rushing added, because survivors don’t always know the “ins and outs” of an Army installation.
“I went to three different offices trying to figure out survivor benefits, his retirement, and Jody can do it all from one place,” Rushing said. “She knows who to contact, and you don’t have to run all over to get things. She knows all the rules and regulations, and it shortens the process.”
Carmack said that, like the program itself, the tree represents “love the families still have.”
“It’s full of heart,” she said. “It’s not just paper ornaments on an artificial tree with some twinkly lights. Some of my survivors, their service member has been gone 25 years, but they are still right here, wanting to hang their own ornament — and they always still shed a tear.”
For more information on Fort Leonard Wood’s SOS program, Call Carmack at 573.596.0195.
About Fort Leonard Wood
Fort Leonard Wood is a thriving and prosperous installation that has evolved from a small basic training post 80 years ago to a premier Army Center of Excellence that trains nearly 80,000 military and civilians each year.
Fort Leonard Wood is home to the U.S Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and three U.S. Army schools: the U.S. Army Engineer School; U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School; and the U.S. Army Military Police School. In addition to training engineer, CBRN and military police specialties for the Army, Fort Leonard Wood also provides gender-integrated in-processing and Basic Combat Training for new Soldiers.
Fort Leonard Wood also hosts and trains with the largest Marine Corps Detachment and Air Force Squadron on any Army installation as well as a large Navy construction detachment.
More information about Fort Leonard Wood is at: https://home.army.mil/wood/index.php/about/mission