By Kevin O’Brien, DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has been fighting an ongoing war in either Iraq or Afghanistan. We have a generation of children, some graduating from high school and starting college, who can’t remember our Nation not fighting a war. Then regrettably, so many times we hear of a service member killed in combat –Our fallen heroes. It’s a blatant reminder and a harsh reality of a nation at war. We’ve all seen the heart-wrenching images on TV. From the dignified transfer at Dover to the haunting sounds of Taps played at Arlington National Cemetery. These sobering images make us feel a sense of anguish and sorrow.
But what happens after our heroes are laid to rest? The family that suffered this tragic loss, what happens to them? The emotional anguish, the sudden monetary crisis, and all their future plans? This is an unimaginable tragedy no family should ever have to experience and there is no textbook answer for surviving family members on how to move forward.
Recently I had the privilege to meet one of these brave individuals who not only persevered through this tragedy but is now an advocate of families who have lost a family member while serving in the line of duty.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Military Child Education Coalition training seminar in Washington, DC. Over the course of two days, individuals from many military-connected organizations, corporations, universities, veterans and active and reserve military service members came together to engage about military-connected children. The focus was to discuss the challenges military-connected children face in academics, wellness, and current issues.
During one of the lectures however, I decided not to listen to the guest speaker. Instead, I wandered through the many exhibitor booths looking for a story for our education blog. The list of exhibitors varied from veteran groups to professional development organizations to college and universities. I spoke to a few representatives until I eventually came to the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation exhibit. The woman sitting at the booth smiled as I walked up and before I could even say a word, she said, “Hi there, my name is Karen!”
I knew immediately Karen Burris had a story to tell as she began to explain her job as the Program Outreach Officer. “We help provide scholarships to children of military personnel who have been killed in the armed forces,” she said, “And sadly, there is no centralized tracking system of children who have lost a parent while serving in the line of duty. My job is to help find these children who have fallen through the cracks.”
She told me CFPF covers the costs related to undergraduate education, including tuition, room and board, books, fees, computers and living expenses. Scholarship recipients can be enrolled in either public or private institutions.
Karen revealed to me that her husband, Major Andrew Scott Burris, was killed during a training exercise while serving the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, NC. Their daughter, Allison Burris is currently a grantee of Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation.
“I had known my husband since we were 13. He was in the 82nd Airborne Division, Infantry. He was a jump master, he loved the military. And so, unfortunately, he was killed in a tragic accident in 1997 while he was serving in the 82nd and we had a 3 year old girl at the time (Allison), and she is now 21 and will be graduating from the University of South Carolina next May. I couldn’t be any more proud. I’m just so proud of her.”
Karen explained how she originally became acquainted with CFPF. While reading a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) newsletter, Karen came across a blurb on a scholarship. Surprised about reading the discovery in the newsletter, she called several times to confirm and eventually Allison was awarded the scholarship.
The friendly and passionate nature of everyone who worked together to ensure Allison received her scholarship is what inspired Karen to join the foundation, “I was amazed what they were doing with my daughter, what they do is each student is assigned a mentor/counselor and they follow you through all four years of college, every semester.” She explained, “I had called in and I had talked to Kenzi Vizzari, who was Allison’s mentor. She herself, and all of our grants mentors have lost a parent in the line of duty and received a scholarship themselves. They are completely aware of what to do as well as being completely sympathetic to any of their needs. So, I told Kenzi one day that if they ever needed any help with what they were doing, to please think of me because I couldn’t think of a more incredible organization to work for. And so, as it turned out, they were hiring at one point and sent an email out and I think I stayed up till 4 am doing a resume and sent if off and I got hired.”
Karen says the greatest challenge is locating the children. The casualties from combat are generally well known, but less well known are the hundreds of fathers and mothers that die in training accidents and other duty-related accidents every year. More than 15,000 children have lost a parent to combat over the last 25 years. The goal is to reach each and every one of these children, and so far, CFPF has identified 5,448.
Despite the challenges, Karen and CFPF do what they can to get the word out. “The way I found out about it, was of course, through TAPS. What I’m trying to do is go to the military bases, and I’m trying to gain a very strong relationship with every survivor outreach service through the Army. During the MCEC symposium, that venue was great, because I was able to meet people from the Coast Guard, and the Navy and the Marines and the Air Force. These types of forums are really great because you really get to engage with such a diverse group.”
Once the connection is made with a potential scholarship recipient, enrolling with CFPF is the next step to ensure a child will receive the financial support. Karen says the goal is to guarantee that no child covered will have to pay out-of-pocket or student loans to pay for college.
“What we do is, any child that’s lost a parent while in the line of duty they will receive whatever gap after Chapter 35 or Chapter 33 (Post 9/11 GI Bill) leaves off,” Karen explained, “CFPF will try to fill that gap. Whether it is tuition, books, living expenses, anything that a child needs to get through college, we figured it would be about $34,000 per student. That’s our average of what it winds up being for each student. Our basic function is to go and bridge that gap, and any other scholarships they receive. I can’t say enough about it because being a recipient and parent who no longer have to worry about college education.”
Karen says over 436 kids have received scholarships and 135 have graduated. She said what is so amazing about the foundation is the children build a warm relationship with the mentors and it’s an ongoing connection. “I literally stepped out of the picture because Allison and Kenzi became such good friends and they communicate with each other. So, the counselor on the other end can say ‘How are you doing? How are your grades? Are you feeling overwhelmed?’ They really build a close bond with these kids and I think that is another way we stand out and make such a difference because it’s all about a relationship. And if you’re having a tough time, because it’s a bad time of the year, then they’re there.”
“What I love most about Children of Fallen Patriots is that 100% of what we raise goes to the children. We have an incredible board, very strong board. If you give us a hundred dollars, a hundred dollars goes to straight to the children and their education.”
It is such a terrible tragedy when a child faces the loss of a parent in the line of duty. That’s why it’s so important we have people dedicated to serving these families, and helping them through this challenging time is one of the best ways to honor their sacrifice.