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TAPS Retreat Offers Comfort, Hope for Grieving Widows

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

KEY LARGO, Fla., Feb. 24, 2012 – Vicki Terrell looked out at the turquoise Gulf of Mexico, remembering happy days when she and her husband, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Paul Terrell, frolicked on their live-aboard powerboat and set anchor in the Florida Keys.

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Bonnie Carroll, left, founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, embraces Gloria Baker, whose husband, Air Force Master Sgt. Kyle Baker, died in December 2010, during a TAPS retreat in Key Largo, Fla. DOD photo by Donna Miles
  

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Terrell returned here this week to relive some of those memories – this time without her soulmate, who died serving as a contractor in Afghanistan in June 2010.

But she wasn’t alone. Terrell joined 37 other military widows and fiancees at a four-day retreat sponsored by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors to help them work their way through the grieving process.

From the moment she arrived here Feb. 21, Terrell said, she felt a deep connection to the other participants. “I feel like I’ve known these women half my life,” she said.

And by sitting with them -- and sharing their deeply personal stories between dips in the surf, a parasailing ride and even a parachute jump with the Army’s Golden Knights -- Terrell said she came to a realization she simply couldn’t grasp back home in Forsyth, Mo. “I’m not the only one going through this, who sometimes struggles to put one foot in front of the other,” she said.

Bonnie Carroll founded TAPS in 1994 to provide comfort and care to grieving military families after her own husband, Army Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, was killed in a military plane crash in Alaska. The program provides a long list of comprehensive services and programs, including regional survivor seminars, Good Grief camps for children and nine retreats each year – three for widows, widowers and significant others; three for parents and three for siblings.

The retreats provide participants a time to relax and meet other survivors for fellowship, sharing and fun, Carroll explained, while embracing the theme: “Remember the love, celebrate the love and share the journey.”

Widows and fiancees at this week’s retreat, each wearing a button with her loved one’s photo, talked freely about the men they lost – not just the circumstances that cut their lives short, but about what made them special, Carroll said. “They get an opportunity to share their dreams and hopes here with complete acceptance,” she said.

In the process, Carroll said, they come to accept that although death ended a life, it didn’t end a special relationship. “All that love and joy still exists, and this retreat offers a chance for them to experience that joy in an accepting environment,” she said.

TAPS has been particularly busy during the past 10 years of conflict, but Carroll emphasized that it serves all military families, regardless of how, where or when their loved one died.

Gloria Baker said she takes particular strength from the acceptance and support she has found through TAPS. Her husband, Air Force Master Sgt. Kyle Baker, returned from Afghanistan with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and ultimately took his own life in December 2010. TAPS has helped her come to terms with her loss, she said, and to understand there’s no shame in how he died. “He was a hero who could never fully come back” from his combat experience, she said.

To honor his memory and the sense of adventure he embodied, Baker went parasailing this week and laid plans to jump with the Golden Knights to commemorate what would have been his 37th birthday today.

“This is his present to me,” she said of the retreat. “And what I have found here lets me know that I’m not alone, because there is a connection and a bond between all military widows.”

Tears still come easily for Baker and most of the TAPs participants, followed by a touch, a hug or a knowing smile from another widow as the moment passes.

The outreach has been a great source of comfort for Sandra Talamantez, whose husband, Army Sgt. Steven Talamantez, was killed in Iraq in July 2011. Talamantez admits she’s just now starting to “come out of the fog” that immediately descended on her, and that she still struggles to avoid using the word “we” in her conversations, rather than simply “I.”

But seven months after his death, Talamantez said, she senses that her well-meaning friends are getting tired of hearing her talk about what she had, what she lost and how she’s struggling to move forward. Only her mother-in-law, who shares her deep, heart-stabbing sense of loss, seemed to truly understand, she said.

But through a “girls night out” dinner with other military widows near her home in Texas and this week’s retreat, Talamantez said, she’s found that despite their different circumstances, they all share a special bond.

Donna Shannon, whose husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Shannon, died of a heart attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in January 2010, said TAPS has given her a lifeline to cling to as she focuses on healing.

“It gives me an opportunity to meet other women who, without words, know how I feel,” she said. “What I love about TAPS is that you can be smiling one minute, then boo-hooing the next minute, and then there is laughter again.”

Shannon said she finds comfort talking with other widows who have endured the same pain she feels and moved forward. “It gives me hope,” she said. “It helps me realize that I can go on, and really helps smooth the path that’s been thrust on me.”

Eleven years after her husband of just five weeks, Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Sheaffer, was killed in a military parachute training accident, Terri Starliper has dedicated herself to helping other military widows navigate that path. She leads a support group in Northern Virginia and is serving as a volunteer group co-leader at the TAPS retreat.

Starliper said she’s indebted to Carroll for the healing support she provided and the brave example she set. “I told myself, if she was able to get through this, then I can do this, too,” she said.

“So for me, this is giving back,” she added. “It’s a way for me to take what was really bad and awful for me and to try to make it a little easier for someone else.”

Along the way, Starliper said, she continues to heal while keeping her husband’s memory alive in a way that helps others.

This week, she planned to mark a big step in her own personal journey through a tandem jump with the Golden Knights. She knows it will be a highly emotional experience – bringing back memories of the jump she made with her husband – but she said she’s ready. “So even after all this time, there is still healing that goes on here,” she said.

Ultimately, Starliper said, knowing that their loved ones won’t be forgotten is one of the greatest sources of comfort for military widows. “When you think about these men, you are talking about really amazing people who touched lives and made a difference,” she said. “They were among the best.”

Starliper said she hopes participants in the TAPS retreat will return to their homes a little stronger for their experience on the beaches of Key Largo.

“Not only are they making new friends and a new support network, but they’ll be able to take bits and pieces of what they’ve learned here from each person and apply them to help them along their own journey,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing, the healing that goes on here.”

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Related Sites:
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors
Special: DOD: Military Family Support

Click photo for screen-resolution imageKyle Harper, surviving fiancee of Army Staff Sgt. Michael Hullender who was killed in Iraq in 2007 and the onsite coordinator for a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors retreat in Key Largo, Fla., jumps with a member of the Golden Knights. Courtesy photo  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSylvia O’Neal, left, whose husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Lee O’Neal, died in 2007, shares a laugh with Donna Shannon, who lost her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Shannon, in January 2010, share a laugh during a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors’ retreat for military widows, widowers and significant others in Key Largo, Fla. DOD photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageGloria Baker, strolling along the beach during a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors retreat in Key Largo, Fla., said she’s found acceptance and support through TAPS that’s helped her cope after her husband, Air Force Master Sgt. Kyle Baker, returned from Afghanistan with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and ultimately took his own life in December 2010. DOD photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageTerri Starliper found strength through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors when her husband, Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Sheaffer, died in 2000 and now volunteers her time for the program to help other military widows. DOD photo by Donna Miles   
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