Children of Fallen Find Comfort at TAPS Camp
(June 4, 2010)
Army Spc. Johnathan Boring
helps Nathan Gallowally attach a message for a
fallen loved one to a balloon. Gallowally was
one of the some 375 children who attended the
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors' Good
Grief Camp in Crystal City, Va., over Memorial
Day weekend. Boring was a volunteer mentor at
WASHINGTON, June 1, 2010 – Trevor Jones peers
into the vivid blue sky, tightly gripping the
string holding his balloon.
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
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
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
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
“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.”
Article and photo by Elaine Wilson|
American Forces Press Service
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