WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2014 —
When family members of Defense Department service members lose their loved ones to suicide or other deaths, they have more than the support of family, friends and their community. They have the support of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors staff.
TAPS is a not-for-profit organization that meets its mission by providing peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, casework assistance and connections to community-based care. It provides immediate and long-term emotional help, hope and healing to all who are grieving the death of a loved one in military service to America.
For Rebecca Morrison, TAPS suicide survivor communications liaison, it has a personal connection as well. Morrison’s husband, Army Capt. Ian Morrison, was a U.S. Military Academy graduate and Apache helicopter pilot. In 2011, he deployed to Iraq, and after 10 months, he returned with anxiety issues, depression and insomnia.
“Ian was a very active, happy, positive guy. He worked out all of the time and ate healthy,” she said. “In 2012, in the last two weeks of his life, he didn’t sleep. He hardly ate. He stopped going to the gym. He seemed very anxious most of the time. The main issue he talked about was sleep.”
Morrison had been teaching elementary school students at Fort Hood, Texas, and was working on her master’s degree when Ian started having trouble and lost his life to suicide. As his unit memorial approached, Morrison said, her college professor gave her the TAPS phone number.
“I had just had the funeral; I was just terrified basically, and I called TAPS really late, about the night before,” Morrison said. “I told Bonnie Carroll my story a little bit. She said, ‘Hold on, I’m going to connect you with someone whose story is similar to yours, and she’s going to call you and help you.’ I was like, ‘She’s never going to call.’”
“Probably two minutes later,” she continued, “Kim Ruocco called me and just let me pour my story out. She gave me the support to get through the next day. Some TAPS representatives came to the memorial and supported me.”
The support affected Morrison so much that she began volunteering at TAPS, and now she works there full-time.
“Within the first week of Ian’s death, I started in counseling with a traumatic grief specialist who knows a lot about suicide, and I tried to remember things I enjoyed before Ian’s death,” she said. “I allowed myself six months to go crazy and grieve and not get off the couch. Then I made myself do something every day. I ride my horse. I play music. My faith in God has been huge. I deal with this every day; I wish I didn’t have to. But there was someone who was there for me and pulled me through and held that flashlight in that dark time, and if I can be that for someone else, then what a gift I can give back.”
A personal tie
Ruocco, the director of the TAPS “postvention” programs, has a personal tie as well. In 2005, her husband, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, a Cobra gunship pilot and father of her two sons, returned from a tour in Iraq, and 10 weeks later, he was preparing for a second tour when he lost his life to suicide.
It has been nine years since her husband’s death, Ruocco said, and she uses her loss to help other families.
“When they come to us,” she said, “our hope is that we can take this family who has now had this horrible crisis, and we can help them to reset that family in a healthy direction, a healthy grief process that includes educating the children around suicide, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. We help mothers to model for the child health seeking, self-care, problem solving and all different kinds of things to integrate with the families so that it’s moving forward in a healthier way, a healthier journey than they may have had if they didn’t get the help they need.”
When her children are struggling with something, Ruocco said, she teaches them that it is OK to say, “I need to talk to you about this,” or “I need to talk to somebody else about this,” or “I need support around this,” or “I’m feeling a certain way.”
“We need to help families incorporate these thoughts and that’s really what we do here at TAPS with these families,” she added. Ruocco said she hopes Defense Department leaders will encourage service members to use these phrases as well and to speak up when they are feeling any sense of hopelessness, especially in the current climate of downsizing.
“As we’re downsizing, so many of these guys who have been to war and seen combat may be struggling with post-traumatic stress and depression and may hide their symptoms for fear that that may be the one thing used to have them pushed out of the military,” Ruocco said. “It’s really important for us to help these guys get treatment for injuries and illness and to let them know that if they have to leave the military, there’s another life out there, a community out there that wants to embrace them and support them.”
Even leaders need help
The key, Ruocco said, is for leadership to relate to the service members and to let them know that even they themselves seek help sometimes.
“Seek help no matter what rank you are, because once you can get help and get through it, you become an example for someone else and you save a life, and that’s the biggest gift you can give to your brothers and sisters in arms,” she said.“It is to have the knowledge and to have the skills now, because you’ve been through it -- you can now empathize, identify and support somebody a lot better than you would have before going through it yourself.”
Ruocco said that when she speaks to service members at events, she has a line of people who want to talk to her and who tell her they never thought it was OK to say out loud that they were having problems.
“We’ve got to encourage them to talk to one another, to talk to their peers, talk to their leadership, because chances are they’ve been there too, and they’ve had the same struggles,” she said. “It’s really sad when you have somebody die by suicide and then his peers come forward and say, ‘I was struggling with that too. Why didn’t he tell me?’”
“It happened in my husband’s case,” she continued. “His guys came forward after his suicide, and they had had the same traumas, the same losses and exposures, and they told me, ‘I was talking to him, but he never said it to me.’ You’ve got to trust your peers the same way you trust them with your life on the battlefield. Trust them with what you’re going through when you get back, too, and get some help together, because they’re going through it. They’re just not saying it out loud all the time.”
Resources are available
Morrison and Ruocco said they are glad to put their tragedies to a positive use with TAPS and that they encourage people who are considering taking their lives to reconsider and use the many resources available to them.
“Each one of these guys is valuable, each one of them,” Ruocco said. “We mourn each one of them. We look at them and say, ‘He had so much to give.’ I don’t care how much trouble they’re in, what kind of addiction, depression, or post-traumatic stress issues they have -- it’s fixable. There are so many good programs out there. You do not have to ever feel like you can’t get through it to get to the other side.
“The country wants to support them,” she added. “The military wants to support them. They want them to be OK. They deserve to be okay. They deserve the help, so I hope they ask for it.”
Families of the fallen can call TAPS, a 24/7 tragedy assistance resource, at 1-800-959-8277. Service members and their family members needing support can call Vets 4 Warriors, a 24/7 confidential peer-to-peer support help line run by veterans at 1-855-838-8255 or visit http://www.Vets4Warriors.com.
Another resource available is the Military Crisis Line, available at http://www.militarycrisisline.net, or by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, and by texting 838255. The Military Crisis Line also is available to service members overseas in the following locations:
-- From Europe, dial 00800-1273-8255 or DSN 118-8255.
-- From Korea, dial 0808-555-118 or DSN 118.
-- From Afghanistan, dial 00-1-800-273-8255 or DSN 111.