Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2009, 6:13 pm

Gold Star families have new light on the horizon

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Sean Leary, sleary@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Donna Engeman is going to be an emissary for the gold star program, a program for families bereaving the loss of loved ones during a war. Her husband, John, was killed while serving with the Army.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Donna Engeman is going to be an emissary for the Gold Star program, a program for families bereaving the loss of loved ones during a war. Her husband, John, was killed while serving with the Army. She displays the gold star that will be given to families.
An Army widow has brought a softer side to the military.

Donna Engeman's husband, Chief Warrant Officer John W. Engeman, was killed in Iraq on May 14, 2006. She's channeled that loss into help for others, leading the Army Survivor Outreach Services.

"After John died, it was like I lost my world,'' Ms. Engeman said. "I hope that, somehow, I can make things less difficult for other families and widows in that same situation.''

Her efforts, augmenting the Gold Star program for survivors of Army casualties, offer counseling, help and a conduit to existing military programs for those mourning the loss of a loved one in battle.

"The Army is great at fighting wars, at training for war, but maybe not so good at understanding the softer side of things when dealing with families who experience casualties,'' Ms. Engeman said. "This is a very emotional thing. When John died, they were good at helping set up the funeral and getting benefits to me, but I felt that once that was over, the door was closed.

"He was in the Army for 28 years -- it was a part of our lives -- so when he died, it was like, suddenly, I was all alone, like I didn't have that family,'' she said. "It wasn't about the money. It was about the support and being able to find your place in the world.

"There are a lot of young widows out there with children who are suddenly thrown into the work force and having to deal with the the grieving and mourning process,"Ms. Engeman said. "What I want the program to do is be able to provide counseling and peer-to-peer support groups, but also job training and help for the spouses and families. And a lot of these services already exist, but people aren't aware of them.''

Ms. Engeman has served in the federal government for 13 years, most recently as a logistics management specialist with the Tank and Automotive Command at the Rock Island Arsenal. The idea for the new program came to her a little more than a year ago, and she diligently pursued it through military channels before getting approval, and the top job.

She'll be the point person for implementing programs, hiring staff and making sure the program stays true to its goal, she said.

"We also want to raise awareness about the Gold Star program,'' she said. "We don't wear a uniform. We don't have the visible scars of battle. But believe me, our hearts are deeply scarred.''

However, through the program and her involvement, she believes she'll find at least a modicum of healing, she said.

"When I think about what happened, sometimes I'm just trying to find something positive to come out of it, and maybe this is it,'' Ms. Engeman said.

"This'll be my fourth move since John died,"she said. "I just feel so lost trying to fit in. But maybe this time I'll be able to put down some roots. I know I can't really share this with him, but it feels good to do it. It feels good.''

For more information on the Gold Star program, see www.goldstarmoms.com.