Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. Raymond displayed their support to the families of fallen or wounded service members during an annual Survivor Advocacy roundtable, March 24.
The event was designed as an opportunity for survivors to discuss support services, their benefits and provide unfiltered feedback or concerns to senior leaders.
“I’ve been a firm believer that we have to take care of our Airmen and our families,” Brown said. “Although you’ve lost a member of our force, you’re still a part of our family and I think that’s very important. We understand, no matter whether an individual’s been injured or paid the ultimate price, we want to support you.”
The group acknowledged the Department of the Air Force has made progress, but also discussed additional improvements that will benefit survivor families.
“I’m committed to powering your ideas, to listening to your concerns and discussing your observations,” Raymond said. “I believe the power of the Department of the Air Force, both the Air Force and the Space Force, exists in Airmen and Guardians and their families. Your open and honest feedback will help improve lives, help improve the Department of Defense and help make us better services, and I can’t thank you each enough for being here, for sharing your thoughts.”
The survivors recommended several changes for current programs, including asking the services to not categorize survivors based on cause of death.
Samantha Lewis, widow of the late Staff Sgt. Jordan Lewis, a CV-22 flight engineer in the 20th Special Operations Wing at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, who died during a training accident in 2015, called it a form of exclusion.
“This Air Force is all about being more inclusive,” she said. “All of the sudden, I’m just not allowed to participate in things because my husband’s death wasn’t as valuable as somebody else who died in combat.”
The families also felt that the role of casualty assistant officer should become a career field. They highlighted people who were passionate about the job and willing to help, but were limited in their scope.
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity for families to have a single point of contact on base who knows your specific story, or about you as a human being,” Lewis said. “It should be a single person, not an additional duty shared among people at the Airmen and Family Readiness Center.”
Lt. Col. N’Keiba Estelle agreed, explaining that the program manager helping her had known her specific situation and what to ask for updates on, despite it being just one of several additional duties.
“I would like to see some changes with the training from a leadership perspective, just educating commanders on the importance of what the Gold Star Family program means,” said Estelle, commander of the 6th Mission Support Group at MacDill AFB, Florida, and widow of the late Maj. Raymond Estelle, who died in 2011 after 19 years of service. “There appears to be no standardized training to prepare the program managers. They are just kind of told ‘hey, do this’ and ‘figure it out’.”
The families requested survivors be granted emergency access to child care and the process to obtain investigation reports be simplified. They also suggested an increase in the reimbursement rate for counseling and therapy, and to extend the suicide prevention and response program services to siblings of the fallen.
Additional feedback requested for long-term support resources, increased mental health care options, for the service member’s unit to maintain a connection with families, to extend medical benefits for surviving children to 26 and to remove the higher education requirement.
After listening to the stories and concerns of surviving family members, Brown collected the feedback and annotated items in which the Air Force can begin improving on, but also voiced that some suggestions require legislation from Congress, and recommended the survivors continue engagement with their representatives.
Raymond agreed, saying he shared Brown’s interest in helping.
“You have two service chiefs and two services’ spouses who will raise our voices and be supportive,” he said. “Please don’t be bashful, please don’t wait for the next meeting if there’s something you think needs to be addressed. Speak up, and we’ll do everything we can to be supportive and helpful.”
Brown also honored the survivors by officiating Staff Sgt. David Rhoton’s virtual reenlistment ceremony. Rhoton, assigned to the 1st Combat Camera Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, is a survivor of the late 2nd Lt. Christopher Rhoton, who died in 2019 while assigned to the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw AFB, South Carolina.