She felt exhausted, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Seeing
what these children went through on a daily basis was enough to
break her heart. To her they were so strong, and being able to give
them a safe place to be vulnerable was an amazing opportunity. All
she wanted to do was to hug them and take away their pain.
Sgt. Rebecca Place, 21st Medical Squadron, primary care element NCO
in charge, and two other volunteers participated in Snowball Express
in Dallas, Texas, Dec 9-13, 2017. Snowball Express is an
all-expenses paid event for children of fallen military members.
This event is meant to offer them five days of fun, hope,
friendship, and new memories during the holiday season.
This is not the first volunteer event these volunteers have
attended that caters to the needs of our Gold Star families. This
was the first Snowball Express for two of them, however, they have
all volunteered with TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for
Survivors. TAPS is a support program for anyone who has lost a loved
one in the military. They offer seminars, camps, retreats, and
online chat groups so families never have to feel alone.
These programs are meant to provide emotional support and
healing for families who have lost military family members.
They also give these families a chance to meet each other
and form new bonds with others who have gone through similar
“These kids’ worlds have been turned
upside down by a loss, then a secondary loss when they were
disconnected from their military communities,” said Marnie
Herbert, 21st Medical Squadron mental health technician.
“They are reconnecting with others just like them. They
support each other during the grief process and help each
other not to feel so alone.”
These events give
military members a chance to see the impact they have on the
families of the fallen. Place started her journey with the
TAPS program back in 2001. At the time, she was stationed in
Washington D.C. as a member of the United States Air Force
Honor Guard. After spending months performing funeral
ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, she realized that
she didn’t really get to interact with the families as much
as she had hoped.
“Once I volunteered at my first
TAPS Nationals over Memorial Day weekend, I was hooked,”
Herbert said. “This was a way to give back to these families
and let them keep their military connection.”
More than 1,700 family members and mentors gathered for the Snowball
Express balloon release in Dallas, Texas, December 9, 2017. The
event brings together children of fallen military members and gives
them a chance to relate to other children going through the same
(Courtesy photo provided by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Alexis
TAPS events are meant to give grieving families a safe
space and the tools to help them heal, and to connect them
with other families that understand what they are going
through. These events are powerful and emotional, and not
just for the families involved, but also for the mentors.
The staff makes sure that mentors are also getting proper
self-care and support.
During these events some
mentors can feel overwhelmed, or find themselves reliving
past losses. For these instances, chaplains are always
available for the mentors to speak to, or they can step out
and take a break before returning to their mentee.
“I think there’s something very
powerful and humbling about being a support for a hurting child,”
said Herbert. “So many military members have also experienced loss
themselves and I’ve seen healing during the mentor’s journey by
drawing on the strength of the kids.”
Herbert explained how
volunteering at these events can really help military members see
how they are part of a big community. For some, it offers comfort
knowing that should something happen to them, there are people who
are going to make sure their families are taken care of.
“TAPS really piqued my interest as I work in mental health, but I’m
also a military spouse and have young kids whose identity is framed
around being raised in the military lifestyle,” said Herbert. “It
was so touching to watch kids who have attended before reach out to
the first time attendees and show them the ropes.”
At the end
of these events, mentors are encouraged to continue their
relationship with their mentee, in hopes that when they attend
another event they will be paired again. This helps create a level
of comfort for the child to help continue their journey with someone
who already has an understanding of their situation.
bonds that you form with these kids are incredible,” says Place.
“I’ve kept in contact with many of my ‘kids’ over the years and have
watched them grow into amazing young men and women who are now doing
great things in the world.”
It might seem difficult to
imagine discussing grief with a child. Place says there can be a
fear that the child won’t like you and that you might say something
wrong. She explained that if you just follow the child’s lead, then
everything will be okay.
The very first event that Herbert
attended was a TAPS Suicide Survivor Seminar. She was nervous about
the heaviness of the event, and that the connection with her child
wouldn’t be as organic as everyone said it would be.
am, a 33-year-old adult, worried that this kid wouldn’t like me,”
says Herbert. “Just the opposite happened-- we were perfect for each
Hebert continued by explaining, these kids really
look up to the mentors that volunteer at these events. They provide
a level of support that influences them greatly.
hearing different survivors during Snowball Express saying that once
they saw a TAPS person, they knew they would be okay,” said Place.
“They have a level of trust in us that we can help them with
anything. You form bonds with them that you didn’t think you could.”
Herbert feels these events offer up a great opportunity to help
out in the military community and make a difference in the life of a
child who has lost so much. Each experience is unique and has a
different impact on the mentee and the mentor.
“One thing is
very clear,” said Herbert. “Every volunteer leaves having learned a
life-changing lesson. Each lesson is personal to the individual, but
it’s exactly what they need at that moment.”
Learn more about TAPS
and its upcoming events near you
By U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Alexis Christian
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