Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — Honoring life, legacy of fallen heroes

Elijah Simmons, son of fallen Soldier Sgt. Matthew Simmons, whispers a secret message to
Sgt. Kalynn Casey, health care specialist, Company C, 64th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd
Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, while playing a game of “telephone,” during the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors conference at the Elkhorn Conference Center, Saturday.

Story and photos by Spc. Nathan Thome

4th Infantry Division Public Affairs Office

“Remember the Love, Celebrate the Life and Share the Journey.”

This was the theme of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Regional Conference as Family and friends gathered to remember and honor the lives of their loved ones, at the Elkhorn Conference Center April 5 and Saturday.

“TAPS is the national organization for all those who are grieving the loss of a loved one in the military,” said Bonnie Carroll, TAPS president and founder. “It’s an opportunity for Families to connect with others who are also grieving a loss, so they can support each other, learn coping strategies, be here with a military Family and honor their loved one.”

The conference was open to all those affected by the passing of a servicemember.

“One of the most important things about our organization is that we honor all those who serve, and care for their Families, regardless of their relationship to the person,” said Carroll. “It’s about the love and the life (of Soldiers and their Families) and honoring all those whom that servicemember left behind.”

Spouses and children, who were divided into age groups, broke off into their respective areas to participate in “grief camps,” where they could mourn with their peers.

Children were paired with their mentors, who spent time with them and participated in a variety of activities, including circle time.

“Eight years ago I lost my brother. I was a month away from graduating basic training and I never really dealt with it myself, so this was a way for me to start dealing with it,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Stearns, cavalry scout, Headquarters Support Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 4th Infantry Division. “I thought the best way to help myself was to help someone else; so I started mentoring last year.”

Stearns spent his time at the conference mentoring Krystle Lane, daughter of the late 1st Sgt. Christopher Lane, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Inf. Div.

“This is my third time mentoring Krystle,” said Stearns. “We were paired up together at the Fort Carson event last year and then again in D.C.

I feel like she was the one who picked me.”

Stearns said the biggest accomplishment is to get the children to open up, to get them to talk about what they’ve been through and the losses they’ve experienced.

“Being a mentor, to me, means holding out a hand for those who need it,” said Stearns. “I think the most important thing is to make these kids feel special; they need to feel like they are the most important thing. I’m here for her,

I’m not here for me; my goal all day is to make her feel like she’s No. 1 today.”

Stearns and Krystle have developed a bond through the mentorship program provided by TAPS.

“I noticed when I first started mentoring her, (that) she was very, very shy,” said Stearns. “Slowly, she started coming out of her shell; she became more expressive and (today she) shared things with the group (for the first time).”

During the adult group, spouses, friends and other loved ones discussed coping skills, grieved together and conversed about how their lives have been affected by their loss.

“This weekend we hope Families walk away with the knowledge that they are not alone, that there is support for them, that their loved one is remembered and honored,” said Tina Saari, director of regional programs, TAPS. “We put Families in groups with others who have lost loved ones in similar situations. They can talk to each other about grieving, learn from each other, develop coping skills and know that there are others out there who they can turn to for help.”

After the grief camps concluded, attendees wrote letters to their loved ones on tissue paper and attached them to helium-filled balloons, which they released into the sky.

“The balloon release is something for Families and children. They want nothing more than to send a message to their

loved one, so very symbolically, we write those messages, things we would want to tell our loved ones; just a simple message like ‘I love you and I miss you,’” said Saari.

TAPS conferences are held across the country throughout the year and the program provides a 24-hour hotline for those seeking help, peer-mentoring programs and casework assistance.

“The big thing is don’t do what I did and bury it away,” said Stearns. “Get help; don’t be afraid or think that you have to hide it. (TAPS) is there, it’s available and it’s worthwhile; I wish I would have done it a long time ago.”

For more information about TAPS, call 800-959-TAPS (8277), or visit http://www.taps.org.

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