Dempsey Kicks off Memorial Day Weekend with TAPS Families
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 24, 2013 The nation’s highest-ranking military officer told his audience today at the Crystal City Marriott here that as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays across the United States this Memorial Day weekend, it will be uniquely their song.
“You’re the ones that sacrificed so we can play that national anthem,” he said.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deanie Dempsey, spent time today with the estimated 2,200 participants gathered here this weekend for the annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp. TAPS is an organization for families of service members who died in combat, by suicide, in training or from sudden illness.
“It must be something extraordinary for you to listen to the national anthem, because no one has had the experience of being handed a folded flag,” the chairman said. “You have. And those of us who haven’t experienced that don’t know, really, what that -- I can’t even conceive of what it must be like.”
Dempsey told the adult audience he addressed today -- he also spoke separately to the children -- that he and his wife build their Memorial Day weekend calendar around the seminar “because I find you to be an incredibly inspirational group.”
Hundreds of red-T-shirted men and women gathered in the hotel’s ballroom to listen to the general. The red T-shirts are for TAPS members, but some also had “peer mentor” or “volunteer” written on the back. White T-shirts, for staff members, dotted the room. Outside, the TAPS children assembled for their own time with the chairman.
Each child was accompanied by a blue-T-shirted mentor. Mentors, according to TAPS guidelines, must be current service members or recent veterans and must have lost someone close to them.
The chairman said that while the sense of community in TAPS makes the seminar an event he and his wife look forward to, it’s also a sad occasion.
“You’re here because you’ve suffered some incredible sadness and loss in your life,” the chairman said. He added that unfortunately, the organization is likely to continue growing “for a while.”
“Just before I came over here I signed nine letters of condolence to nine families who are recent members of your community,” he said. “And I hope that at some point, when they’re ready, they’ll join you.”
People who have lost a loved one need to be able to talk to others who understand some of what they’ve been through, Dempsey said.
“And that’s you,” he said. “I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to come here, not just to get something, but to give something. That’s really what makes this such a powerful gathering of men and women -- and children, actually.”
The five-day event began May 22 with training and preparation, and culminates this weekend with activities including camps for younger and older children and workshops on topics from art therapy to “turning hurt into hope,” for adults. The seminar also includes a run/walk, balloon release, sunset parade, Pentagon tour, baseball game and other activities. TAPS staffers pair children one-on-one with a mentor -– 500 for this seminar -- who will stay with them throughout the events.
Amy Neiberger-Miller, who handles the organization’s publicity, explained the organization often seeks to pair children with a service member or veteran who has completed the organization’s mentor training and has a similar occupation to the child’s lost parent.
“If a child’s father was a helicopter pilot, then we can match them with a mentor who is also [one], who can tell them what it’s like to fly,” she said. “Many come back here year after year, from very far away, to be here and support these children.”
Dempsey left the ballroom full of adults, and soon after he went next door to another ballroom, where children of all ages and their mentors sat on the carpeted floor waiting for him. Among those still entering the room before the general arrived, much piggybacking and tickling could be observed.
Army Sgt. James Cunningham, now in the individual ready reserve and about to leave service, sat next to a 7- or 8-year-old boy he introduced as “Ro-ro.” The two whispered and laughed and looked at a smartphone screen together while waiting for the chairman.
When Ro-ro wasn’t paying attention, Cunningham quietly confided that while in the active Army, he had lost a friend to suicide, and later another to a suicide bomber.
“It goes on and on, unfortunately,” he said.
The chairman sang “The Unicorn Song” at the top of the program for the younger children, and a version of Train’s “[Not a] Drive By” for the older ones. Dempsey’s version of the chorus to “Drive By” included:
“Oh I swear to you
We’ll be there for you
This is not a drive-by
Just between us, nothing comes between us …”
Several of the children took part in a question-and-answer period. Many chose to tell the chairman about the parent they had lost, mostly in Afghanistan.
One boy said, “He was at war once in Afghanistan. He really liked to play games with me and my brother … then he had to go back to Afghanistan, and he died. I don’t know how he died.”
Dempsey left the children laughing, ready to keep singing. Minutes earlier, before he left the adult session, he had a final message for everyone in a red T-shirt.
The chairman said, “I promise you that despite all the complexities of life in Washington these days, and all the uncertainty about the future of our budget, and all the things that make headlines and make for good 24/7 news, that we will remember what’s most important about our nation. And that is the care for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, our veterans, and those who have lost their life in the service of our country and their families.”