By Staff Sgt. Robert Cloys
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
No one likes to talk about suicide.
According to the Pentagon, suicide took more military lives in 2012 than combat. That reality is alarming, but even more so to those left behind.
Those men, women and children are not forgotten. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors provides ongoing peer-based emotional support for those grieving the death of someone who died or committed suicide while serving in the Armed Forces. They are brought together with others who have experienced a similar loss to help foster comfort, healing and hope.
This weekend, that support came from 101 Front Range mentors, including 16 Schriever Air Force Base active-duty members and two dependent spouses.
“The TAPS Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors this past weekend at Cheyenne Mountain Resort was uplifting, tearful and sobering,” said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Marquez, 50th Space Wing Command Post.
The camp hosted 109 children and teenagers from around the country grieving the suicide of a member of the Armed Forces.
“My age group was from 4 to 7,” said Airman 1st Class Jessica Barnes, 50th Space Communications Squadron. “They knew their parent had passed away but at that age some of them don’t really know what suicide is. It was about making them comfortable talking about missing their parent.”
For Barnes, the whole experience was about paying it forward.
“This kind of volunteer work is so important,” she said. “These kids love the military. They thought it was so cool that I was in the Air Force. They need to know that just because they had a parent pass away, they are not forgotten by the military. That’s the life they are used to. You could tell it brightened their day.”
Working with children so young caused an array of emotion for Barnes.
“I was playing with the girl I was mentoring and she looked up at me and said, ‘I wouldn’t want to watch movie or play games. I would just like to spend time with my dad,’” Barnes recalled. “They have these moments where they are really in tune, with their emotions and then they quickly can become distracted with something else and be happy again.”
Senior Airman Jareo Brumfield, 2nd Space Operations Squadron, also dedicated his time to mentoring children at the camp. His task was just as difficult with the older children aged 9 through 12.
“The issues these kids had to deal with were really heavy. One child witnessed his stepfather who had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder take his own life,” he said. “He dealt with a lot of guilt, not so much anger, but a deep feeling of guilt because he believed that somehow he was responsible for it.”
Because many of the children felt they had to fill the role of their fathers in a sense, Brumfield said they often had to suppress their feelings to stay strong for their surviving parents.
“We did a lot of activities to help them open up,” said Brumfield. “We had them write letters to their father, and another as if they were their father including all the things they would want him to say.”
The experience was one he would never forget.
“A lot of them don’t get the opportunity to be kids anymore. They don’t laugh a lot because they don’t feel that it’s appropriate to play and be a kid,” he said. “That’s the heaviest part. You have kids who have experienced things even many adults would have a hard time handling. They’re so resilient.”
For Brumfield, the impact of the weekend wasn’t felt until it ended.
“I didn’t see the impact until the end,” said Brumfield. “The whole weekend you’re just going through everything the best you can. You’ll never be fully equipped for something like this. We had a group session where I asked the children I was mentoring what the best part of their weekend was. They told me it was getting to know and spend time with me and the worst part of the weekend was leaving.”
Before the weekend ended and the children returned home, he wrote them both a letter and provided his phone number for whenever they needed it. They returned the favor with a hug.
“I think it was at that moment I realized I had actually made a difference,” he said.
To find out more about upcoming volunteer opportunities from TAPS visit www.taps.org.