07/22/09 — Coping with loss

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Coping with loss

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 22, 2009 1:46 PM

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4th Fighter Wing Chaplain Maj. Bill O'Sullivan, left, and Master Sgt. Carlos Miramontes, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Chapel operations, talk about how to help the base community -- and those outside the gates -- cope with news that two local airmen were killed in Afghanistan.

Maj. Bill O'Sullivan is no stranger to tragedy.

Helping people cope with loss comes with the territory when you're an Air Force chaplain.

But his experiences have taught him that when the worst happens, anyone can be a shoulder to cry on.

So as the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base community -- and those outside the gates -- mourn Capt. Mark R. McDowell and Capt. Thomas J. Gramith, the two 4th Fighter Wing officers who died this weekend in Afghanistan, he expects people from all walks of life to provide the comfort and compassion he, too, will offer until healing happens.

"In a fighter community certainly, and I guess in the aviation community in general, relational roots run deep. Folks rely on each other, and not just when tragedy happens. They lean on each other day to day," he said. "Where we come in, we are a formal resource that the base can use to help folks heal, but by the same token, it seems like most people heal best when they have that neighbor or that friend ... who can just be there through the tough times."

Thousands of family members are still waiting for their loved ones to come back to Seymour Johnson from war.

So when the base suffers combat-related losses, more and more of them need someone to confide in.

O'Sullivan's approach is simple enough.

"What we try to do is just be there. It's not so much about providing words," he said. "Words are so often inadequate. Certainly the last thing people want to hear are platitudes. We often rely on clich├ęs to try to bring people through a tragic time, when really, more than anything else, what they really need is a loving, supportive, caring resource -- a shoulder to cry on."

The major has been one during the aftermath of a crash before.

He remembers being stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., when a F-117A Nighthawk went down during a training mission, killing the pilot.

"The stress on the spouse and, of course, all the supporting cast that was there with her, it was just palpable," O'Sullivan said. "Being there was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do."

But through it all, he understood then -- as he does now -- just how important it is to reach out to those in need under circumstances like these.

"Through it all, it just comes down to sincere, caring, loving presence that folks need in order to get through times like this," O'Sullivan said. "And if we can provide that, man, that's fantastic. It takes another spouse or family member ... to provide that, well then that's great. Whatever it takes."