Air Force Families Forever: Keeping Connected

Holly Logan-Arrington

Tuesday, July 6th, 2021

A loved one’s death can leave family members feeling alone.

However, the Airman and Family Readiness Center at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, wants deceased military members’ next of kin to know their Air Force family is there for them.

Air Force Families Forever, also called AFFF, is a long-term survivor program that provides support to next of kin family members of deceased Air Force, Space Force, and Air Reserve component Airmen and Guardians who died in an active-duty, inactive duty for training, or annual training status and whose relationship was established prior to the Airman or Guardian’s death.

In 2014, Air Force long-term survivor support was decentralized from Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, and the program was reassigned under Airman and Family Readiness Centers.

Since then, the centers have supported survivors with information, referral to needed resources, and connection to the Air Force family. They have developed specific procedures to provide support to eligible next-of-kin through centers at installations closest to where the survivors reside.

“Our mission is to link families of fallen Airmen to Air Force family promotion survivor resilience, thereby fostering well-being and connectedness,” said Jennifer Smith, a community readiness specialist at the A&FRC who manages Robins’ AFFF program here.

AFFF’s objective is to meet the families where they are and when they’re ready.

“We provide a warm handoff to the receiving A&FRC program manager to ensure the next of kin does not have a break in service, if the person is not in our immediate area,” Smith said. “Based on my communication with the families, some have desired to receive helpful information to aid in navigating their life journeys. For example, if a family has a need for additional counseling, we link them with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors or Veterans Affairs.”

The Air Force Personnel Center identifies AFFF members’ next of kin and sends information to the AFFF program manager, which initiates interaction with the families through the Survivor Continuum of Care Team, also called the SCC Team.

“Each member of the SCC team must follow guidance, including public law, Department of Defense and Air Force instructions that directly or indirectly affect support provided to Gold Star families and surviving family members,” Smith said. “The initial contact begins with a 10-day packet mailed to the next of kin assigned to Robins, after receipt of official documentation.”

Gold Star families are those whose military loved ones died during military conflict. While there is a separate program dedicated to Gold Star families, they’re also part of the AFFF program.

When a service member dies, there is a three-part survivor continuum of care. On a short-term basis, representatives from the Casualty Assistance and Mortuary Affairs office at their respective bases offer help to the deceased military members’ next of kin. Finally, AFFF program managers at A&FRCs provide long-term services to the next of kin.

“There are outreach touch points set by the AFPC,” Smith said. “The AFFF program manager initiates calls to the next of kin every month for a wellness check and extends invitations to installation events.”

No matter how military members lose their lives, Smith said all next of kin family members matter.

“It’s very important to treat all the families, Air Force Families Forever and Gold Star families with the same respect, service and care,” she said. “When someone loses a loved one, it’s very important for me to handle them with kindness, empathy and understanding. Although the means to their void may differ, the absence of their fallen loved one compares to none.”

Smith said she partners with base leadership to ensure deceased military members’ next of kin family members are taken care of.

“Our AFFF families are diverse and multi-generational,” she said. “As the AFFF installation representative, working with installation leadership to provide families a lifetime connection through the Defense Biometrics Identification System card is essential to remaining connected to the families.

“Partnering with the installation’s Visitor Control Center and the 78th Security Forces Squadron to issue the DBIDS cards to families ensures a seamless transition,” Smith said. “The cards provide access to the installation. Their DBIDS cards may be used for access to morale, welfare and recreation activities on the installation.”

Smith said collectively, the A&FRC and the program’s families move beyond individualistic expression to shared care and concern.

“The objective of my role with the A&FRC is to create a place for these families to have a connection and purpose as we provide different means to honor the lives of their fallen Airmen and loved ones,” she said.

Currently, Robins is serving AFFF next of kin families up to a 100-mile radius of the base.

Base leadership’s support has been at the heart of the program’s success at Robins.

“Commanders and civilian leaders are completely committed to demonstrating their genuine care and concern for the needs of the families,” she said. “Families need to be ready to receive our support and hospitality with the willingness to participate with the programs and resources offered. Thus, we encourage AFFF families to communicate with us, so we know when they’re ready.”

Smith said she hopes that deceased military members’ next of kin families will allow Robins to be part of their journey forward.

“These relationships are life-changing and necessary to move forward in a productive as possible manner,” she said. “We cannot remove their pain, but we can walk with them through it. It’s about sharing and caring in such a way that people would not think twice about being a part of something bigger than all of us. It is my hope that AFFF families will feel their worth as part of the Robins community and ask, ‘What shall we do to join you?’”

For more information on the AFFF program at Robins, call the A&FRC at 478-926-1256.