ARLINGTON, Va (AFNS) --
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 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 noted some improvements that have already been made. Group moderator Randi Ramcharan said the biggest, recent improvement was expanding the long-term support program.
“We’ve expanded our program to be the same across the board, regardless of the cause of death,” she said.
The Air Force has also made improvements including providing clear guidance on installation access for surviving families, connecting survivors to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, and assistance with filing taxes.
The group then discussed additional enhancements that will benefit survivor families, asking the senior leaders for help.
“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, 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 that the role of Air Force Families Forever representative 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,” said Samantha Lewis, widow of the late Staff Sgt. Jordan Lewis, a CV-22 Osprey flight engineer in the 20th Special Operations Wing at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, who died during a training accident in 2015. “It should be a single person, not an additional duty shared among people at the Airman 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 programs she manages.
“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, the 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’.”
After listening to the stories and concerns of surviving family members, Brown collected the feedback and annotated items in which the Air Force can continue to build on current improvements, 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.