Hero Summit Encourages Americans to Support Military Families

It’s the day after Thanksgiving and thoughts of gratitude are lingering following a day of rest, relaxation and reflection on the blessings of life. Service members are always on our minds at DoDLive, but especially during the past 24 hours. We’ve also been thinking a lot about their families.

We know how important family is to troops and realize that loved ones are often the rocks that our men and women in uniform rely on to keep them resilient and ready to defend our country.

Military families are the unsung heroes of the Defense Department and thankfully, we aren’t the only ones who realize this.

Patti Walker, left, wife of retired Army 1st Sgt. Kevin Walker and Wounded Warrior Program advocate on Fort Riley, Kan., talks to ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts during a Hero Summit panel titled, “The Other Side of Sacrifice: Military Families” in Washington, D.C., Nov. 15, 2012. Other panel members included, from left to right, Bill Norwood, father of Marine Corps Sgt. Byron Norwood, who was killed in action; retired Air Force Maj. Lori Bell, wife of an active duty Air Force airman and founder and president of the National Association of Military Moms and Spouses; Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors national director of postvention programs. DOD photo by Bradley Cantor

Patti Walker, left, wife of retired Army 1st Sgt. Kevin Walker and Wounded Warrior Program advocate on Fort Riley, Kan., talks to ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts during a Hero Summit panel titled, “The Other Side of Sacrifice: Military Families” in Washington, D.C., Nov. 15, 2012. Other panel members included, from left to right, Bill Norwood, father of Marine Corps Sgt. Byron Norwood, who was killed in action; retired Air Force Maj. Lori Bell, wife of an active duty Air Force airman and founder and president of the National Association of Military Moms and Spouses; Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors national director of postvention programs. DOD photo by Bradley Cantor

Newsweek and the Daily Beast recently hosted their inaugural Hero Summit, a two-day theatrical-journalism event designed to bring together American military heroes, civil servants, writers and historians to examine the definition of American heroism and share stories of courage and bravery in the face of extreme adversity.

Among the heroes that they summoned was a panel of military family members gathered to discuss the challenges faced by military families and the ways that American citizens can support them. The half hour panel discussion was a touching and insightful tribute to military families who bravely face the challenges of military life from constant moves, to caring for wounded warriors and honoring the lives of service members who were lost.

ABC news correspondent Deborah Roberts moderated the family panel, which included retired Air Force Maj. Lori Bell, wife of an active duty Air Force airman and founder and president of the National Association of Military Moms and Spouses; Bill Norwood, father of Marine Corps Sgt. Byron Norwood, who was killed in action; Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors national director of postvention programs; and Patti Walker, wife of retired Army 1st Sgt. Kevin Walker and Wounded Warrior Program advocate on Fort Riley, Kan.

Each speaker offered insight into the unique challenges military families face. Retired Air Force Maj. Lori Bell began the discussion by noting how hard it can be to keep herself and her family grounded when coping with frequent moves and unexpected deployments.

When her family was given two-weeks’ notice that her husband would deploy to Afghanistan, Bell said, she “wanted to connect with someone, but no one wanted to connect with the commander’s wife.” That experience, she added, inspired her to start an online community for military families that offers support in times of need without worrying about rank or social politics.

Bell is now the founder and president of the National Association of Military Moms and Spouses. Her website offers military families the opportunity to connect and receive mentorship when dealing with the unique challenges associated with a military lifestyle.

Patti Walker, wife of retired Army 1st Sgt. Kevin Walker and Wounded Warrior Program advocate on Fort Riley, Kan., also understands the importance of community support for military families. She experienced a great need for community support when her husband, retired Army 1st Sgt. Kevin Walker, was recovering from wounds sustained during a tour in Iraq.

She realized how important a little extra help can be when a family is caring for a wounded loved one. She said that small, everyday actions from community members can make a huge difference and encourages all Americans to support veterans by lending a helping hand.

“When you call your relatives, wherever they are, ask them to embrace the veterans in their community,” she said. “Employ our wounded veterans. Embrace their children. Give a minute of your time. Offer [vets] a thank you. If you have a service that you provide, [offer it for free].”

Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors national director of postvention programs and Bill Norwood, father of deceased Marine Corps Sgt. Byron Norwood, pointed out that often the best kind of support people can offer is compassion, empathy and an ear to listen. Norwood’s son was killed during a rescue mission in Fallujah, Iraq.  and Ruocco lost her husband to suicide in 2005.

Honoring the lives of their loved ones has been crucial to the healing process for both Norwood and Ruocco and surrounding themselves by supportive, compassionate people has been the key to helping them do that.

In the wake of his son’s death, Norwood said, he finds comfort by reaching out to Marines who served with his son and mentoring wounded service members in an effort to remind them to “live a strong, wonderful life, and enjoy it.”

Ruocco said her fear that her husband’s death would overshadow his life helped her to realize the emotional needs of other suicide survivors.

“When someone dies by suicide, [survivors] so often focus on the death and how [their loved one] died, and it wipes out everything else,” she said. “I think for suicide survivors, they want to talk about their life and who this person was — that they had so much to give and [they weren’t] a crazy, bad person.”

Ruocco now works with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors to help family member survivors of military suicide rebuild their lives in the wake of tragedy, and she urges citizens to offer survivors compassion and the opportunity to talk about their loved one’s life as they heal.

The four speakers offered many valuable insights into the lives of military families and the many ways American citizens can reach out to support them. If you know a military family in your community, take a moment of your time to get to know them and show them you appreciate them by lending a helping hand.

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