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Family Matters Blog: TAPS Brings Out Survivors in Families

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., June 1, 2012 – Our national leaders often speak of military families’ resilience, and that is something I witnessed firsthand here last week at the 18th annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors National Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp.

While hundreds of thousands of visitors descended on the Washington, D.C., area to commemorate our nation’s war dead, some 2,000 people crowded into a Marriott hotel here to help themselves and each other deal with the grief of losing their very own military heroes.

You might expect such a gathering to be morose, and there was an understandable amount of sadness. Most of the participants lost someone in recent years or months – a parent, spouse, sibling or child – and the deaths usually were sudden. The seminar and camps help by bringing surviving family members together in understanding and expressing their grief.

The participants at TAPS events are called survivors, and the word is written on the red T-shirts all are given at registration. The word is more than just a way of describing the living, as you might read in an obituary; it also describes the strength and resilience of the families. When the adult participants came together in an oversized ballroom, they created a cacophony of chatter and, yes, laughter. In that room, on that day, you could not have known you were walking into a room full of grieving people.

Still, I moved delicately among participants, asking if they would like to talk about their lost loved one for publication. They all did.

“My husband was an awesome man,” Shelann Clapp, of Texas, told me. Her husband, Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Douglas Clapp, was an Iraq war veteran with 31 years of service when the helicopter he was riding in near Fort Hood crashed, killing him and six others, in 2004. A conference center is named for him at Red River Army Depot, Ala.

In the early days, Clapp said, she would put on sunglasses to hide the tears as she cried her way through traffic to work each day. She and her husband had commuted together. But on this day, at the TAPS seminar, Clapp, wearing a button with a picture of her husband as a much younger man in Army fatigues, smiled broadly as she spoke of him. “He left a legacy for us,” she said.

Like other survivors, Clapp wished everyone could have known the person she loved. “We all want to create pictures of what that person was like.”

The wound was fresher for Bob and Kitty Conant, whose son, John, died from an undiagnosed heart condition in 2008. The Conants traveled to Washington from California to attend the seminar and serve as mentors to other grieving families.

Like all the families, their loss was devastating. Army Sgt. John Conant was a combat medic who had deployed three times. Two days before his heart stopped, he was cleared to go again. He had been battling post-traumatic stress, but seemed to have turned a corner and was reconnecting with his family in the months leading up to his death.

“Let me tell you a funny story about John,” Bob Conant said last week. He proceeded to tell me about the time his son, in a burst of anger fueled by post-traumatic stress, got into his car, threw the gear shifter into reverse, and floored the gas pedal to leave his home -- but he forgot to raise the garage door. “It landed in the street!” his father said, laughing.

With strong religious faith, the Conants now are in a place where they can laugh at memories of their son. Other families are in different places in their grief. But one thing they no doubt all would like is to carry on the memory of their loved ones, all lost too soon.


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