"She makes everyone feel like family": Oceana's Gold Star coordinator comforts families of the fallen long after Memorial Day

THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT | Brock Vergakis

They have lost husbands, brothers and sons. Some deaths were caused by war, others by suicide, illness or accident. 

The only things they share in common are their grief, their loved one's military service and Samantha Blackwell.

Blackwell is the Navy's Gold Star coordinator in Virginia Beach – the star indicative of losing a family member on active duty. She ensures that nobody's loved one is forgotten, no one's grief is dismissed, and that there's always someone there to listen. She's soft-spoken, flashes an easy smile and isn't shy about searching out people to dispense a comforting hug.

"She makes everyone feel like family. She's amazing. She really is the real deal," said Joshua Hermiz of Virginia Beach. His brother, Marine Cpl. Jacob Tate, died in Afghanistan in 2011.

While the nation pauses to honor its fallen on Memorial Day, Blackwell, 49, is the glue that holds together a community of military family members who have experienced the loss of a loved one the other 364 days a year. Blackwell is the one who lets survivors know they're not alone long after the flowers have stopped arriving and the social media tributes have waned.

Hired in 2015, she's the first person to hold the job at Naval Air Station Oceana. She has quickly endeared herself to family members by checking in on them throughout the year and planning monthly events where families can share stories or just have fun together by going roller-skating, indoor skydiving or to a hockey game.

"I don't know what her life story is," Hermiz said. "I don't know if she lost people, but she's just the right kind of heart. It's a very unique gift she has. I couldn't begin to understand how, or why she got it, but I'm glad she does." Continue reading
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