More than 25 service members gathered during a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors event held at Cheyenne Mountain Resort during April 2017 as part of the Month of the Military Child.
April 2, 2017 - Attendees participate in a parachute activity during a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Good Grief Camps event at Cheyenne Mountain Resort, Colorado Springs, Colorado. The activity provided play therapy for children who had lost military family members. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Arielle Vasquez)
The Good Grief Camps program paired children from military families who have lost family members with mentors to establish communication, maintain a military connection and let them understand they are not alone.
Wearing buttons with photos of fallen loved ones, more than 70 military children interacted with members from several Colorado-based military posts, including Schriever Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force Base, Fort Carson and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Supporting Grieving Families
TAPS, a nonprofit organization, provides programs to support families who are grieving the death of a loved one who served in the armed forces. Retired Air Force Maj. Bonnie Carroll created the organization in 1994 after losing her husband, Army Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Carroll, commander of Alaska’s Army National Guard, in a plane crash in 1992.
“At the time, there was no organization for losing a military member in the family,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Teri Cervenak, 50th Security Forces Squadron flight sergeant. “Now, families have somewhere where they can grieve and talk to other military members who understand what they’re going through. There were grieving sessions throughout the entire weekend for parents, children and spouses.”
The first day of the program consisted of training for the volunteer mentors.
“The TAPS staff was very helpful,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Ashlee Wheeler, 50 SFS Operations noncommissioned officer. “If we were in a situation where we did not know what to say or do, they helped us out along the way and taught us the best approaches.”
After participating in a variety of activities and a trip to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the kids chose who their mentors would be for the remainder of the weekend.
Wheeler said the children were initially quiet and somewhat withdrawn, but by the end of the first day, many of them interacted with other mentees and the mentors.
“The little girl I mentored is 6 years old,” Cervenak said. “She never shared anything about her father, but within the first day, she talked to me about him. She never shared anything in a group setting, but on Sunday she did that for the first time ever, while pointing to the picture she drew of her dad. The group leader said that was a huge step for her. It was a blessing to be a part of that.”
Many times, connections made with mentees last beyond the camps and events.
“The girl I spent time with was closed off at first, but after a trip to the zoo and activities such as trust falls and an obstacle course, she became attached to me,” said Air Force Airman 1st Class Marissa Pederson, 50 SFS entry controller. “She began to share more information about her dad and family members. She and her mom both asked if I would like to visit her on weekends. I really want to be there for her after this program so I can continue to support her during her sporting events and important milestones.”
Wheeler said she thought one of the most important parts of the weekend was during the second day.
“We did an activity which involved the kids taking turns sitting in the middle of a parachute,” she said. “We all walked around and told them we loved and supported them. It was an important reminder that even though their family member wasn’t here anymore, they are a part of the service and will always remain in the military family.”Mentors and counselors are always available through TAPS whenever there is a death of a loved one.
By U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Arielle Vasquez
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