By Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — In light of the recent death of Staff Sgt. Austin L. Bieren, 21st Security Forces Squadron, the topic of grief made its way through Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, and into area headlines. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors takes that subject head on every day.
About 300 people gathered March 31-April 2 at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort, Colorado Springs, for the TAPS Regional Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp. The event is one of five regional seminars hosted by TAPS this year.
TAPS is a national organization providing compassionate care for surviving families of military members who died while serving their country. The organization brings families together to share their stories while learning to cope with grief and find healing through common experiences.
“The weekend was profoundly impactful,” said Bonnie Carroll, TAPS founder and president. “There were a lot of first timers so it was the first time for them to see the resources TAPS offers. I heard many family members saying it absolutely changed their lives.”
Among the 80 total mentors assisting with the weekend, 21 of them call Peterson AFB home. From that group, several were friends and coworkers of Biernen, said Mellissa Hermosillo, 21st Medical Group administrative assistant.
“About three-quarters of the mentors were from the Air Force,” Hermosillo, a 14-year TAPS volunteer, said. “Most came from Peterson and Schriever AFBs. Some came from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Fort Carson.”
One of the mentors, Capt. Nathaniel Lee, 50th Operations Group executive officer, had a special reason to volunteer during the event. When he was young he participated in TAPS events after his father died in an Army aviation accident.
“With my (recent) promotion and having a child of my own, it just seemed like the right time to give back to the program that helped me,” Lee said.
His mother still talks about how TAPS programs helped when she was suddenly a single parent raising two young sons. Lee is now around the age his father was when he died and when he saw the request for volunteer mentors it motivated him to get involved.
Numerous activities were planned for those attending the weekend event. For adults there were special speakers and sessions on topics like coping skills, encouraging reflection and opportunities for peer connections. For children the Good Grief Camp provided an understanding environment, along with offsite happenings that allowed them to have fun in a group of others who share similar backgrounds, according to a TAPS news release.
One of the most memorable moments of the weekend was a visit to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Hermosillo said. And the inclement weather didn’t change anything.
“The time at the zoo and seeing the kids enjoy themselves, the snow falling, it was a kind of magical time,” said Hermosillo. “Having the zoo to ourselves, because of the snow, was special for both mentors and mentees.”
Capt. Stephanie Webb, Air Force Space Command Strategic Command flight commander, is another regular mentor in TAPS events. She agreed that the zoo visit was a highlight of the event.
“It worked out really well and was a ton of fun and many of the kids couldn’t stop talking about it. The encounters with animals were awesome. For as many times as I’ve personally volunteered, it changes my life every time,” she said. “The biggest moment for the whole camp was getting to go the zoo in the snow.”
Through events like the Survivor Seminars and Good Grief Camps, TAPS serves families in a unique way.
“Grief is not something you can take a pill for or put a band aid on,” Carroll said. “We can acknowledge the loss and (celebrate) that they lived. It is an opportunity to honor loved ones and heal the heart.”
For more information: www.taps.org or (800) 959-TAPS.