Children of Fallen Find Comfort at TAPS Camp
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 1, 2010 Trevor Jones peers into the vivid blue sky, tightly gripping the string holding his balloon.
A volunteer with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors’ Good Grief Camp sits with the child he’s mentoring before a balloon-release event in Crystal City, Va., May 30, 2010. The child’s message to a fallen loved one is tied to the balloon. DoD photo by Elaine Wilson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A warm breeze is blowing, and his blue balloon bobs against the dozens of red and white ones around it, each held by a child.
The children wait expectantly for the command. The cacophony of chatter dies down just moments before a woman calls out: “Let ‘em go!”
Trevor releases his balloon into the wind, where it joins hundreds of others rising into the sky. They separate and rise swiftly as the children tilt their heads back, squinting into the sun as they strain to keep an eye on their balloon. They don’t look away until the balloons become just distant specks.
Tied to each balloon are one or more messages to a loved one – a father or mother, sister or brother – who had died while serving the nation.
Some of the messages contained a simple, “I love you” or “I miss you.” Eight-year-old Trevor chose to keep his private, a personal moment between him and his soldier dad, who died of a pulmonary embolism three years ago.
The balloon release was one of the culminating events of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors’ Good Grief Camp held in Crystal City, Va., over Memorial Day weekend. About 375 children attended the camp, held in conjunction with the 16th annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar. Along with the children, more than 650 adult survivors also attended the seminar, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, TAPS public affairs officer.
While TAPS sponsors regional children’s camps throughout the year, this D.C.-area camp is the largest, drawing families from across the nation.
“They learn how to express feelings, that whatever they’re feeling is OK,” Neiberger-Miller said as children lined up to head back to the hotel. She understands the process on a personal level. Her brother, Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, was killed in Baghdad on Aug. 6, 2007, from wounds sustained in an improvised explosive device attack.
Along with the loss of a loved one, military children also suffer secondary losses, she noted. If the surviving parent doesn’t also serve, the family often will move to a new community, and the child loses a familiar environment as well as a known peer support network of teachers and neighbors. The people around them may not understand what the child is going through, she added.
A network of care is vital, Neiberger-Miller said, and is something the camp aims to provide.
“We do a lot of activities with children that talk about feelings and how to express their feelings, and they learn whatever they’re feeling is OK,” she said.
“You can’t take away the pain a child feels, as much as all of us wish we could,” she continued. “But what we can do is give them skills to cope, strategies to cope, and give them a peer support network with other children.”
The camp features “grief work” customized for all ages, since those who attend range from preschoolers to high school seniors.
The younger children, for instance, made life-size self-portraits on which they are asked to express their feelings. Some children made their feet extra big to show how grief weighs them down, while others changed their skin color to show how sick grief makes them feel, Neiberger-Miller said.
The older children also have an opportunity to blow off some steam at a teen bash, a hugely popular event, she said.
All campers work one-on-one with a mentor, who guides the child through the camp and also offers a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on. The mentors are mostly active-duty servicemembers ranging from privates to generals, and represent all military services.
“This camp is just amazing,” said Army Cpl. Eric Lichtenberg, a three-time camp mentor stationed at Fort Myer, Va. This year, he was paired with Trevor.
Lichtenberg said he has noticed a difference in Trevor, even over such a short time.
“It’s slow; he’s very reserved,” he said. “But now and again, he’ll talk about his dad. This is his first year here so he’s still fresh in the grief process.
“It’s comforting to know that something like this is here if my kids should need it,” he said. “What this camp means to these kids …” his words trailed off as he fought to hold back his tears.
Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Todd Kirby, a two-time mentor who works for the Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Va., was drawn to the camp, hoping to give back to the families who have sacrificed so much. Kirby, who is preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, said he’s also glad TAPS is there to help his family, if needed.
Kirby mentors 18-year-old Ben Suplee, of York, Pa., whose father, Army Sgt. 1st Class Daniel A. Suplee, died four years ago of injuries sustained when his Humvee was involved in a traffic accident in Kabul, Afghanistan. Kirby has spent time teaching Ben about expressing his emotions. He stressed the importance of talking and of understanding that some emotional outbreaks are fueled by grief.
He believes it’s not just the talking, but the military connection the mentors provide that’s beneficial to the children.
“Mentors offer a military mindset and that military perspective they’re so familiar with,” he said.
This is Ben’s fourth year at the Good Grief Camp. He said he learns something new each year. This time, he’s walking away with a more-positive attitude, he said.
The camp “gives us kids a sense of we’re not alone in this fight of grieving,” he said.
While Trevor chose to keep his message private, Ben was eager to share the message to his father that he released into the wind:
“I love and miss you, Dad, and wish you could see the man I’ve become. Love, Ben.”