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TAPS volunteers help honor family heroes

CRYSTAL CITY, Va. -- Master Sgt. Jon Wedel, an Air Force Honor Guard member, talks with other volunteer mentors at a mentor training session about his past experiences being involved in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.  Held over Memorial Day weekend, TAPS is a three-day camp children and family members who have lost a loved one in military service can attend that aims to help teach families how to grieve, as well as share their stories and make friends who share their loss.

Master Sgt. Jon Wedel, U.S. Air Force Honor Guard, talks with other volunteer mentors at a mentor training session about his past experiences being involved in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Held over Memorial Day weekend, TAPS is a three-day camp children and family members who have lost a loved one in military service can attend that aims to help teach families how to grieve, as well as share their stories and make friends who share their loss. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Madelyn Waychoff)

Senior Airmen Afton Thornton and Sara Skoog, Air Force Honor Guard members, work with children attending the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors camp, the two were mentors for the children - helping them have fun by playing games, as well as talking to them during grief sessions about the loss of their loved one.  Held over Memorial Day weekend, TAPS is a three-day camp children and family members who have lost a loved one in military service can attend that aims to help teach families how to grieve, as well as share their stories and make friends who share their loss.

Senior Airmen Afton Thornton and Sara Skoog, U.S. Air Force Honor Guard, work with children attending the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors camp, the two were mentors for the children - helping them have fun by playing games, as well as talking to them during grief sessions about the loss of their loved one. Held over Memorial Day weekend, TAPS is a three-day camp children and family members who have lost a loved one in military service can attend that aims to help teach families how to grieve, as well as share their stories and make friends who share their loss. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Madelyn Waychoff)

CRYSTAL CITY, Va. -- Sam Clarke, a technical sergeant with the Air National Guard, works with 6-year-old Laura Hilton while she writes a letter to her mom and dad during the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors camp.  Held over Memorial Day weekend, TAPS is a three-day camp children and family members who have lost a loved one in military service can attend that aims to help teach families how to grieve, as well as share their stories and make friends who share their loss.

Tech. Sgt. Sam Clarke, Air National Guard, works with 6-year-old Laura Hilton while she writes a letter to her mom and dad during the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors camp. Held over Memorial Day weekend, TAPS is a three-day camp children and family members who have lost a loved one in military service can attend that aims to help teach families how to grieve, as well as share their stories and make friends who share their loss. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Madelyn Waychoff)

Tech. Sgt. Phillip Shaw, an Air Force Honor Guard member, talks with two attendees of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.  Held over Memorial Day weekend, TAPS is a three-day camp children and family members who have lost a loved one in military service can attend that aims to help teach families how to grieve, as well as share their stories and make friends who share their loss.

Tech. Sgt. Phillip Shaw, U.S. Air Force Honor Guard, talks with two attendees of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Held over Memorial Day weekend, TAPS is a three-day camp children and family members who have lost a loved one in military service can attend that aims to help teach families how to grieve, as well as share their stories and make friends who share their loss. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Madelyn Waychoff)

CRYSTAL CITY, Va. -- Most of the children are playing and laughing with those around them, while others are writing or coloring quietly. But a few are sitting alone, unable or unwilling to engage anyone at all. An air both of excitement and grief pervade the rooms, as old friends meet again and new arrivals watch shyly, hoping to make a friend or two. 

Here, the new kids, the experienced kids, infants and teenagers, and their parents, as well, all share a common bond. 

It looks like an everyday camp, kids running around laughing and playing, volunteers playing games and giving the young ones rides on their shoulders. An uninformed person might never guess, watching the scene unfolding, 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. TAPS was founded by Bonnie Carroll, who lost her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, in an Army National Guard plane crash in 1992. Today, more than 200 children and parents attend the camp, with 190 volunteer mentors - mostly military - to help them honor their loved ones. 

"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 acknowledge the loss of their loved ones, and meet others who have suffered the same loss or can help understand and mentor. Fun and education are the key s in the program, as those who volunteer as mentors soon find out. 

Mentors are 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. Music and art therapists, are among the many professionals who teach both the mentors and their charges 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 they hear are heartwrenching, but they help people realize there is hope, and that it's OK to mourn, as well as to be angry. 

"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. By meeting both mentors and peers who have experienced similar tragedies, the children begin to understand they are not alone. 

"This is the most rewarding thing I do all year," said Rob Rice, an Air Force veteran 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 event held every year over Memorial Day weekend. This year the Double Tree Hotel in Crystal City, Va., hosted the camp, which began on a Friday when families came in and children chose their mentors, and ended on the Sunday with a dinner and goodbyes. Families are treated to trips around Washington, to see the sights, to Ft. Myer, Va., 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 each year is a balloon release,  when the children write a letter to their deceased loved one, tie it to a balloon and release it. 

Overall, the weekend is an opportunity for kids and parents to spend time with others in their situation, to talk, share 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, a Solider in the Iraq war.  "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,a major in the Army, nine years ago. "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.