Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors volunteers help families grieve

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Madelyn Waychoff
  • Air Force Honor Guard Public Affairs
Among the many children seen, most are playing and laughing with those around them, while others are writing or coloring quietly. A few are sitting alone, unable or unwilling to look at and talk to the people they see. There is an air both of excitement and grief pervading the rooms as old friends meet again and new children watch shyly, hoping to make some friends.
Among these people are the new kids, the experienced kids, young infants and older teenagers, as well as their parents. It looks like an everyday camp, kids running around laughing and playing, volunteers playing games and giving the young ones rides on their shoulders. But a typical person would never guess, watching the scene unfolding before them, that these children have come together because of a loss - a devastating loss that meant the passing of their mother, father, sister or brother.
The camp is TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an annual gathering of those who have lost a loved one in military service. The camp was founded by Bonnie Carroll, a woman who'd lost her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, in an Army National Guard plane crash in 1992. Today, more than 200 children and parents attended the camp, with 190 volunteer mentors - mostly military - to help them honor their loved one.
"I've been doing this program for three years," said Master Sgt. Phyllis Oster, a member of the Air National Guard. "I wanted to give back to the kids who lost a parent, brother or sister. I feel that just because the person died doesn't mean our commitment to them or their family has ended. I've lost numerous family members, and this program helps me deal with my own grief as much as it helps the kids."
The camp is structured to allow families to both grieve and acknowledge the loss of their loved one, as well as meet others who have either suffered the same loss or who can help understand and mentor. Both fun and education are key in the program, as those who volunteer as mentors soon find out.
Mentors are all required to attend a one-day class that covers such topics as: tasks of grief: experiencing death realistically, making a connection with a child, expressing grief creatively, understanding military rituals, and helping honor a loss. Also on hand are music and art therapists and other professionals who teach both the mentors and the mentees how to better understand grief.
Like Sergeant Oster, many of the mentors who have participated in the program for more than one year say this camp is one of the most important things they have done. The stories that are shared are heartwrenching, but also show the camp helps people realize there is hope and that it is okay to mourn and be mad.
"I had a little girl who thought her daddy died because she'd been bad," said Sergeant Oster. "She asked me if she was good for the rest of her life, would Jesus let her have one more supper with her daddy. By the end of the camp she was able to see that it wasn't because she was bad that she'd lost him and that she wasn't the only little girl who'd lost her daddy."
This is true for many of those who attend. By meeting both mentors and peers who have experienced similar tragedies, the children can begin to understand they are not alone.
"This is the most rewarding thing I do all year," said Rob Rice, an Air Force veteran who has been involved in the program for seven years. "I want to be able to teach children how to grieve constructively, and let them know they aren't the only ones who have lost someone."
TAPS is a three-day program held every year over Memorial Day weekend. This year the Double Tree Hotel in Crystal City, Va., was the host. The camp begins on a Friday when families come in and children choose their mentors and ends on the Sunday with a dinner and goodbyes. Over the few days of the camp the families are treated to trips around Washington, D.C., to see the sights, to Ft. Myer to eat at the dining facility, to a free circus and to Arlington National Cemetery to watch President George Bush's address to the nation.
One major highlight of the weekend is a balloon release, the children write a letter to their deceased loved one, tie it to a balloon and release it. Reagan International Airport also hold all air traffic for this event, which, according to camp leaders, gives the children a sense of relief and truly allows them to express their grief.
Overall, the weekend is designed as an opportunity for kids and parents to spend time with others in their situation, talk, release emotions, and have some fun as well.
"I think this is fun, I really look forward to everything we get to do here," said 10-year-old Paul Syverson, who attended for the second time this year with his mother and sister. Paul lost his father in the war, he was in the Army. "The mentors are really nice too, I still talk to mine from last year - we send letters once a month."
"I come here mainly for my kids," said Rosalie Horton, a mother of two who lost her husband nine years ago. Her husband was a major in the Army. "What they get out of this and the friends they've made who can understand what they're going through is huge. The people here are family. We were hurt beyond measure when my husband died, we didn't even know about the program until afterwards. The mentors put so much time and effort into helping, I don't think they know what a difference they make."
"You can meet others who are in the same situation you are and who don't treat you different just because they know you've lost your dad," said 15-year-old Carolyn Horton, Rosalie's daughter. "The first year coming wasn't my choice, my mom signed us up. The second year we had a lot of fun and made a lot of friends, friends we can keep in touch with and call when we've had an especially bad day, because they understand."
"This is such an awesome program, and, unfortunately, we have more kids coming every year. We need more mentors to come spend time with these children and help them share their grief," said Sergeant Oster.