Flowers, free airline tickets - support for military families

When Lisa Lockhart's husband was wounded in an ambush in Iraq in July, her world suddenly turned dark. Doctors gave him only 72 hours to live.

But then help started to come in small and unexpected ways. Her husband's commander here at Fort Carson, Colo., changed a flat tire. He helped get a birth certificate and passport for her weeks-old daughter so she could travel to Germany to be with her father, Sgt. 1st Class Dean Lockhart, for the first time.

Care packages followed her, with everything from soothing cards to turtlenecks. "I was gone for so long, people I didn't even know sent me clothes," says Ms. Lockhart from her Colorado Springs home, her husband, now recovering, by her side.

Lockhart's experience is just one example of how bases and the communities around them are pulling together to help the families of soldiers killed or wounded in Iraq.

In some ways, it is a painfully familiar ritual - prescribed care and counseling to help people through the most unprescribed moment in life. But in other cases, the help is unexpected and spontaneous - a clutched hand here, help with a college loan there.

In few places has the humanitarian outreach been more pronounced - and needed - than at Fort Carson and the surrounding community of Colorado Springs.

Last week alone, the World War II-era post in the shadow of Pikes Peak suffered its heaviest combat losses since Vietnam, when a Chinook helicopter was shot down near Fallujah. The crash killed 15 and injured more than 20. Four of the dead and 13 of the injured belonged to the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment stationed here. "We are all just kind of reeling for the moment," Lt. Col. Tony Aguto, executive officer for the regiment, wrote in an e-mail from Iraq.

The base is reeling, too, but also responding, even if the approach is deliberate. Chaplain Maj. James Bixler is on a team of casualty-notification officers. In his dark green dress uniform, narrow tie, and shiny shoes, he stands at the door as an officer delivers the worst possible news.

Mr. Bixler assesses recipients' emotional state, tells them counseling is available, and links them with family, friends, and others who can help them cope.

"They need someone to metaphorically put an arm around them and help them put one foot in front of the other," says the 26-year veteran Army chaplain. "They can't begin to know what to do. None of us would."

The Army also assigns the family a "casualty assistance officer" - someone who was not present when the family received the news. Grief experts say the face of the messenger can be permanently etched in a person's mind.

The casualty-assistance officer helps with paperwork, from how to receive benefits to setting up college funds. "The Army's blessing to me has been sending Sgt. 1st Class Harman," says Tiffany Bader, whose husband was killed in the Nov. 2 crash. "He tells me what I need to know even if I don't want to hear it. He's been wonderful."

Ms. Bader moved to Fort Carson in March just before her husband was deployed. Though she didn't know many people, it was her neighbor - another military wife - who held her up when she fainted upon hearing of her husband's death. "They have arranged for food and flowers," she says of her military neighbors. "They are here feeding my daughter lunch and changing her diaper."

Some families, however, say they've encountered hiccups in the Army's handling of their wartime tragedies. Dawn Littlefield's husband was also wounded in the Chinook crash. Sgt. Ray Littlefield was on his way to Colorado Springs for emergency leave, to be with her during a difficult pregnancy, when the helicopter was hit.

But after Sergeant Littlefield was released from the hospital in Germany, the Army told Dawn they would fly him to the East Coast but that he would have to buy his own ticket to Colorado Springs. "I was kind of shocked," she says. "He gets shot down in a helicopter and the Army turns around and tells him he has to pay for his own plane ticket home."

Such stories of hardship don't go unnoticed in this town where 30,000 troops are stationed and one in five residents is a veteran. Bob Carlone, a retired Air Force colonel, set up a fund to help out families like the Littlefields. At the war's onset, he cofounded The Homefront Cares, a nonprofit agency to help families of deployed troops fix cars, pay mortgages, or travel to see wounded loved ones. "I was lying in bed one night and I thought, 'I can't fly airplanes anymore. I need to do something,' " says Mr. Carlone.

Ever since, the money has been rolling in from as far away as New York. "I was just talking to a friend of mine yesterday and she said, 'Bob, I'd like to contribute $1,000,' " he says.

The local newspaper donated $28,000 in advertising space to his cause. Dollar Rental Car gave the family of a soldier injured in the Nov. 2 helicopter crash a van for two weeks at no charge. Restaurants donated food.

The El Pomar Foundation, a deep-pocketed philanthropic group here, also established a $100,000 emergency military fund this week to pay for people to travel to see injured family members. "You just can't believe how the community comes together," Carlone says.

On a chilly morning this past Saturday, hundreds lined the streets in Colorado Springs to show their support for the military and its veterans. The parade was a welcome home for Vietnam War veterans who never got one. Among the gray beards and VFW hats was the next generation of soldiers wearing pressed uniforms, black berets, and patches showing they'd returned from the nation's latest war.

A 2-year-old boy tugged on the pant's leg of a soldier waiting in line for coffee with his wife and son. The 2-year-old simply said, "Thank you."

The GI looked to the boy's father and nodded. His wife wept.

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