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Noble Efforts

By Heather Graham

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Fort Hood Sentinel (July 29, 2010) -- Ruth Holler, Cindy Dietz and Angel and Nathan Guereca are distinctly different, but in many ways, they share a lifelong bond. They were among those who came to Fort Hood last weekend to celebrate life and share their journeys in grief.

More than 200 adults and 100 children who have lost a servicemember gathered Friday and Saturday at Meadows Elementary School on Fort Hood for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Regional Seminar.
Co-sponsored by Fort Hood's Survivor Outreach Services and TAPS, the seminar provided workshops and activities for survivors to help with grief.

For surviving family members, TAPS and SOS provide a conduit to services and links to help with anything from services to support. At Fort Hood, a TAPS office is located inside the SOS building. Both organizations are there for all survivors of fallen servicemembers, regardless of the cause or manner of their loved one's death.

This was the second year that Fort Hood has hosted the TAPS Regional Seminar.

“The families loved it,” Vanessa
Children and mentors watch balloons drift over Fort Hood during the TAPS balloon release on Saturday (July 24, 2010). More than 100 children and teens took part, letting go of balloons that carried personal messages to their loved ones. The balloon release was one of the final events of the Fort Hood Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp. Photo composite by Rachel Parks, Fort Hood Sentinel Staff
Gabrielson, TAPS youth programs, said.
Workshops included financial planning, relaxation techniques, real estate, after-death communication and self-defense. Line dancing and make-and-take crafts gave families some down time during the seminar. Families also had access to survivor benefit information.

“We try to haves something for everyone,” Gabrielson said.

Their stories were different. Parents of fallen servicemembers, children who lost a parent or sibling, fianc�s and significant others and widowed spouses came together to remember their fallen servicemember. Although the stories were different, the beginning was the same for all.

“We are all here because someone died,” Darcie Sims said.

Sims, director of Training and Certification for TAPS, has been with the group since 1995. She is a bereaved mother and daughter who chose to focus on the lives of her son and father. Sims teaches others how to turn their grief into a celebration of life.

Sims urged the families to connect with the others in attendance.

“The story starts with one single word – love,” she said. “It's not about how someone died that brought us here, but how they lived.”

Ruth Holler is like a lot of mothers. She loves to talk about her son, Lance Cpl. Luke Holler. She wants to tell his story.

Luke was killed Nov. 2, 2006 in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, but Ruth keeps him alive by sharing his life.

“I come here and see that I'm not alone,” Ruth said.

At TAPS, Ruth can share stories and experiences with other mothers.

“I love to talk about my son,” Ruth said.

Sometimes she listens more than she shares.

“You have to be ready to not tell your story,” she said. “Sometimes you mostly listen.”

Parents of fallen servicemembers often need a place to vent and be reminded that their feelings are not crazy but normal reactions to and parts of grief.

TAPS provides that place.

At Fort Hood, TAPS representatives work side-by-side with SOS, the Army's program established to provide services, information and support to the families of fallen Soldiers.

“The first year you can't think about anything else,” Ruth said.

She found positive and creative outlets for her grief following the death of her son.

Scrapbooking and redecorating Luke's room kept Ruth going,

She painted the walls Marine Corps red, hung a USMC flag and still keeps his clothes in the closet.

While others wanted her to close the room off, Ruth uses it as a guest room. Having others stay in Luke's room keeps his memory alive and prompts stories about his life.

Some don't want to remember.

When Cindy Dietz's son, Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Danny Dietz, a Navy SEAL, was killed June 28, 2005, she shut down.

“I kind of ran away,” she said.

Compounding her grief was the publicity surrounding the incident that killed 11 SEALS, including Danny, and eight Night Stalkers from the Army Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

“There was a lot of press,” Cindy said. “It took away from our healing time.”

Danny's death has been a constant open wound for Cindy, who said she finally hit “rock bottom” recently.

She contacted TAPS and then heard from Deb Tainsh, a Gold Star mother and author, and Ruth Holler.

“Our stories are all different, but we can all relate to the pain,” Cindy said. “It absolutely helps. There is a bond we all share.”

This was her second TAPS event, but Cindy said she would like to and plans to attend more.

“This absolutely helps,” she said.

Facing her son's death and the accompanying grief was overwhelming for Cindy.

“I wanted to forget what happened,” Cindy said. “But you can't.”

She knows the process will never end, but it could get better.

“There is no replacing a son,” she said.

More than 100 of the attendees were children who participated in the Good Grief Camp to learn positive ways to deal with the death of loved ones.

For twins Angel and Nathan Guereca, 10, attending TAPS Good Grief Camps, seminars and gatherings are annual events.

The twins' father, Sgt. Joe Guereca, an infantryman with 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, was killed by an IED Nov. 30, 2004, in Fallujah, Iraq.

“We're here to express our feelings,” Nathan said.

Sadness and anger were the feelings Angel and Nathan shared. But, at TAPS, they learn positive outlets for those feelings.

Sharing sessions, squishy balls and games helped the children of the fallen learn about how to express and let out the grief associated with losing a parent, sibling or other relative.

“I know I am not alone,” Angel said.

Nathan agreed.

“It makes me feel not left out,” he added.

Mentors, Soldiers who volunteered to spend the weekend with the surviving children, helped them with their journeys. Each child received at least one mentor, who had completed TAPS training and had committed to maintain contact with a child for at least one year. Adult survivors also had peer mentors available to them. The peer mentors have experienced a loss and have elected to share their journeys to help others.

The boys' mentors, Robert Anetz and Rob Bumbarger, were there to assist the Guereca twins, but also learned from the experience.

“I can relate to them,” Anetz said.

Bumbarger said being around Nathan helped him remember a medic killed during Bumbarger's first deployment.

He admitted to being a little nervous coming to TAPS but the mentor training and being around the twins made it all worthwhile.

“I wanted to be a part of this,” Anetz said. “It made me feel like a kid again.”

Bumbarger said he enjoyed making a difference.

“Theses kids are inspiring,” he said.

Peer mentor Malini Allen volunteered to help because SOS helped her.

She heard about SOS and TAPS when her husband, Pfc. Angelo Allen, was killed two years ago in a vehicle crash.

“They were there for me,” she said. “This is my way of giving back.”

Allen was partnered with a young girl whose Soldier father had died.

Full of energy, the girl amazed Allen.

She was surprised and inspired by the child's ability to talk about her father.

“I am hoping to get better about talking,” Allen said.

She benefitted from the sharing sessions where everyone sat in a circle and talked about their loved ones.

“The circle helped,” Allen said. “I didn't feel so alone.”

Allen was not alone. The more than 300 attendees came from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas, Vermont, North Carolina, Indiana, Alabama, California, Nebraska and South Korea.

“We are global,” Sims said. “This is the embodiment of hope.”

Hope is something Sims works to give surviving families as they help themselves and each other. In the end, it is a choice, she said.

“You can hold someone's grief, but don't carry it,” Sims said.

Grief is individual to those affected by it and can only belong to the bereaved. Sims decided to turn her grief into something positive and make it a celebration of the lives of her son and father.

“There are choices in grief,” Sims said. “You can keep the tragedy or you can keep the life. I choose to hear the life in here.”

Celebrating life does not mean forgetting.

“I carry my loved ones with me,” she continued, “not the grief.”

The weekend's capstone event, the balloon release, provided an outlet for some of the grief. Survivors wrote letters that they folded and placed into balloons. The balloons were released on Saturday as a symbol of letting go of some of the pain.

Of course, Sims said, everyone handles grief differently.

“People don't live in steps and stages,” she said.

Grief does not go away, but it also does not always have to be overwhelming.

“Grief is a lifetime song, but it doesn't have to be a sad song,” Sims said.

By Heather Graham, News Editor
Fort Hood Sentinel
Copyright 2010

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