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Psychology faculty work with Gold Star Mission to support families of the fallen

Gold Star Mission, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was established in 2017 in Springfield after several veterans and friends, affected by the stories of families that had lost a loved one in Afghanistan or Iraq, took action to help others in need. What started as a desire to provide scholarships for surviving children has evolved into widespread effort to assist Gold Star families and others in need in order to preserve the memory of our fallen heroes.

Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Eric Murray, involved with Gold Star Mission, saw the pressing needs of these families. “Too often wives, children, and parents of fallen soldiers are forgotten by the rest of society,” said Murray.

Murray was instrumental in organizing the Gold Star 500; a five day, 500-mile bike ride throughout Illinois to raise awareness and money for the families of fallen soldiers. The ride takes place annually, the last week of September and the route varies from year to year.

“It’s not uncommon to see guys riding 500 miles with the name of a soldier on their backs in remembrance, and that keeps them going through the soreness and pain of the grueling ride,” said Murray. Riders stop at communities along the way to be greeted by and hear stories from families of the nearly 300 Illinois fallen service members since 9/11.

However, greeting riders wasn’t always enough for these families. To better meet their needs, Murray reached out to Dr. Mark Swerdlik, a professor in school psychology at Illinois State University, to see if in fact healing was taking place, what resources needed to be provided (for the Gold Star Families, riders, volunteers, or communities); if healing was happening, how can it be quantified to better support possible funding/grants opportunities to support resources or programs; how to help the people in the community better relate to survivors and their families.

Swerdlik had already been working with the Illinois National Guard (ING) to assist soldiers in their reintegration to society after returning from war. Through his research and subsequent studies, Swerdlik realized there was a new group of students at risk for mental health and educational challenges. This group was comprised of children from military families where at least one parent was deployed.

With the support of a $65,000 grant from the National Guard Association of Illinois, Swerdlik served as the principal investigator in the ensuing study along with faculty colleagues and graduate students. Ever since, they have been collaborating with members of the ING to better meet the needs of military families. This has been accomplished through studies of the social-emotional and educational adjustment of children who have experienced a parental deployment, perceptions of educators and families to the role of the school in meeting the needs of these children, and deployment-related stress and coping strategies used by families.

“The studies related to perceptions of educators and families have impacted the field by helping school psychologists to understand that these children represent an at-risk group and assisting schools in implementing prevention and intervention strategies to meet the educational and social-emotional needs of children whose parents are deployed,” said Swerdlik.

Dr. Eric Wesselmann, a colleague of Swerdlik, commented on his research in the project by saying, “Previous research suggests social support is important in recovering from trauma, whether it be from military experience or from bereavement. My colleagues and I argue that feelings of ostracism likely contribute to trauma symptoms and other related mental health concerns in these experiences. We want to assess the degree to which Gold Star families feel either included or ostracized by their communities, and ultimately evaluate how the programs supported by the Gold Star Mission impact these families’ feelings of inclusion and support.”

The Department of Psychology is proud to know its faculty are reaching out to help the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

For more information on Gold Star Mission, and how it helps the families of the fallen, visit goldstarmission.org.

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