With tragedy comes compassion, and the effects of September 11 left many Americans wondering what they could do to help their countrymen through those terrible events and the wars to come.
“At the time, we all dealt with 9/11 in our own ways. I was serving with the Navy SEALs at the time, and kept trying to go to the front,” says Nicholas Rocha, CEO and founder of the United Warrior Survivor Foundation (UWSF). “At the time, I was an enlisted officer. I kept requesting to be sent up front. While I was trying to get into Afghanistan, a buddy of mine was killed over there in action. This really hit me hard, made me think. So … I set out to create an organization that gave direct assistance to spouses of special operators killed in action.”
The UWSF provides counseling and legal services – and generally just a helping hand – to spouses of Special Operations personnel killed in the line of duty.
With that single but noble intention, the UWSF was created in 2002, and it has expanded its services and donor base over the past few years. The UWSF’s mission dictates that spouses of those killed in the line of duty are free to come to the UWSF with any problem they might have. If the UWSF can help, it will.
“These spouses are assigned by the military to a CAO [Casualties Assistance Officer] for a year. These are pretty much normal guys, sometimes men who have finished tours of duty themselves, … and oftentimes the reality of what happens is the CAO is reassigned or redeployed after three or six months, and the surviving spouse reassigned to someone else. … We really want to complement what the military is doing and help share the burden that [the CAOs] have to bear.
“The foundation will often approach grieving family members before the family is even aware that the foundation exists,” Rocha says. “I asked a widow, Lisa, if she had been to a bereavement counselor. She said ‘no,’ and I asked to set her up with one. She seemed pretty skeptical of our intentions. I later found out the Army had started her out in several programs, but that, for some reason, most of the stuff didn’t get any timely follow up. After doing a good deal of research trying to find a good counselor at a reasonable cost, we contacted Lisa and told her we had someone in her area. She was still hesitant – until I gave her the number. She said, ‘Wait, this is a local area code. My husband’s name has been in newspapers all over the country on casualty lists, and you guys take the time to find someone in my own town?’
She was just blown away by that, by the idea that the foundation would go that extra mile to help her.”
The “Lisa” that Rocha speaks of is Lisa Vance, whose husband, Sgt. Gene Arden Vance Jr., died in Operation Enduring Freedom while on duty with the 19th Special Forces Group. She is now the chair of the UWSF’s board of advisors and helps coordinate the connections to other surviving spouses.
As it has grown, the UWSF has found that many women need more than a year of counseling to overcome the shock and grief of their losses. Sometimes three or more years are necessary. As Rocha relates, “These women seem so strong, but they are really just hanging onto everything by a thread. We are finding our way through this process, and we are finding out what it is they need and what they don’t need. It is not a handout but a ‘hand up.’ Initial thoughts were that college scholarship grants to go back to school was something they would jump on. But as it turns out, only a few of the women need that type of support. What we have found the most useful is what we call ‘the Survivors Reunion,’ survivors helping survivors.”
Held in San Diego at least once a year, the Survivors Reunion brings women together who are going through the same thing at the same time. The trip is all-expenses-paid by the UWSF, and the event is filled with bereavement conferences and special tours and events. “What we found is, because it is Special Operations, the women are taught to be very independent,” Rocha says. But once you hear their story, you realize there are all kinds of needs. And several women said that this one event has changed their life.
“One of the other women that the UWSF had the opportunity to help decided, after receiving help from the UWSF, to testify before Congress,” Rocha says. “She often tells senators straight to their faces that, ‘No sir, this is how it needs to be done.’ Those that the UWSF has assisted have found the counseling so helpful that they themselves offer their services to the UWSF.
“Yeah, she will probably become our next executive director,” smiles Rocha, but speaking sincerely adds, “she’s just such an awesome leader.”
Today, the UWSF relies entirely on private donors for support. In addition to personal donations from troops, the foundation operates as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, conducting fund-raising drives.
Rocha is optimistic about the future of the UWSF program, and expects to expand services in the coming years. As he states on the foundation’s Web site, “We strongly believe that if a woman chooses to stay home and raise her children as her husband goes off to war, if he dies in the defense of his country, the wife should not be forced to suffer any more than she has in her grieving.”
For further information, visit the United Warrior Survivor Foundation at www.frogfriends.com.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2005 Edition.