Colorado Springs Military Newspaper Group

Fort Carson Mountaineer

Common bond unites survivors

Story and photos by Devin Fisher

Mountaineer staff

“It is not even assistance to the healing; it is the healing. It has been the one key element to me being able to live again.”

Meagan Staets credits the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors for her strength to carry on following the loss of her husband, Staff Sgt. David Staets, who was killed in action Dec. 16, 2006.

“(TAPS) is such a part of my family now, I don’t remember it ever not being part of my family,” Staets said during the TAPS national program Saturday, noting it has been two years, four months and 16 days since her husband died.

Staets was among nearly 150 Family members and Soldiers who gathered at the Elkhorn Conference Center May 1-Sunday for the third annual TAPS regional Survivors and Battle Buddies seminars for adults and Good Grief Camp for teens and children. The program provides an opportunity for those grieving the death of a loved one or fellow servicemember to come together to learn coping strategies, gain a network of support, find resources and share the journey of grief with those who truly understand, said Bonnie Carroll, TAPS founder.

TAPS centers around the theme of “Remember the love, celebrate the life, share the journey.”

“(It’s a) chance for Families in this local area and (those who suffered) a loss at Fort Carson to come together and help each other find comfort, support, resources and share their grief,” she said.

Following the death of her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, in an aviation accident in 1992, Carroll tried several support groups “but they didn’t connect.” After discovering she and the other seven Families who lost loved ones in the crash had “everything in common” and that it was “such a comfort” to share with each other, Carroll founded TAPS in 1994.

Starting with a small group of survivors, TAPS has grown into a national program with 25,000 members, she said.

Serving in the military, Carroll said, “it’s a culture, it’s a way of life.” She noted military Families make many sacrifices to meet the mission of military service.

“When a loved one dies, there are secondary losses. The Family is grieving that connection to the armed forces. Being here at Fort Carson this weekend is a wonderful way for Families to reconnect with that life that was so important to their loved one.”

A constant theme shared throughout the Survivors Seminar morning session was that the seminar provided a “safe place” for the survivors.

“What I heard from everybody in the room this morning was this is the one place where they know others understand, where they can be themselves, where they can just share their grief and their love,” Carroll said. “We’ve had laughter and we’ve had tears, but … this is just a soft place to land where we can take care of each other.”

TAPS provided a place for Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham, commanding general, Division West (First Army) and Fort Carson, and his wife, Carol, to find other Families who lost a loved one after they lost their two sons in

a seven-month span. Kevin, an Army ROTC student, committed suicide in 2003 and Jeffrey, a second lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2004.

“When you lose a loved one … it’s devastating,” the general said. He said TAPS allows you to be with people who understand what you are going through, because they have been there.

Carol Graham said finding TAPS was a “turning point” in their lives. “It’s been our mission here to share TAPS with the Families of Fort Carson.”

The general said the Grahams’ reason for speaking out is to help others see that there is hope.

“You’ll never forget your loved ones, they are always in your heart. You’ll never get over it (the loss), you’re just working to get through one day at a time.”

Chad Weikel said he was lucky to find TAPS shortly after he lost his best friend – his older brother – April 18, 2006.

“My life has been turned upside down since that day,” Weikel said Saturday, two weeks after the three-year anniversary of his brother’s death.

He said after the services and the funerals “it gets pretty quiet,” but TAPS members kept calling him.

Weikel credits TAPS for saving his life during the dark days that followed his brother’s death. “I found out I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t alone and there are others that have gone through this kind of loss.” He said he has learned from those who came before him and is grateful that he can now give back by helping those who come to TAPS behind him.

“The power of TAPS is understanding you are not the only one going through this (and) that (the many) emotions are an actual response to a really messed-up situation.”

He said a TAPS event is the one place where survivors don’t have to fake it by putting on a front that they are alright.

“Here we cry openly and we laugh a lot, but with people who get it,” he said. “There are no barriers. There is understanding. There is support,” Weikel said.

TAPS launched a new program in January to further its reach to servicemembers who have lost their “Battle Buddies.” Similar to the Survivors Seminar, Battle Buddies provides peer support for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who lost fellow servicemembers.

The biggest challenge has been recruitment, said Weikel, Battle Buddies program manager.

“We know there’s a need and we know what we do works,” he said, the issue is finding out how to get Battle Buddies in the door.

While the adults were in the main ballroom, about 40 teens and children attended the Good Grief Camp held in the breakout rooms. The Good Grief Camp offers a “safe and supportive atmosphere” to conduct activities and opportunities to learn coping skills, establish and identify support systems and create awareness that they are not alone in the grief of their loved one, Carroll said.

“Kids that leave here this weekend will stay connected well into the future,” she said.

One Good Grief Camp activity had children writing letters to their lost loved ones. The letters were tied to balloons and then released into the sky, “sending them up to their (loved ones), symbolically, up in heaven,” she said. “It is a chance for kids to put down in writing the things that they want to tell their big brother, dad, mom – the loved one they lost … it’s just a wonderful thing to do.”

For more information about TAPS visit http://www.taps.org.

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