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TAPS: Volunteers connect with families of fallen

Children taking part in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors National Good Grief Camp in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day weekend, spend some time with a therapy dog. TAPS supports families and others grieving the death of a lost a loved one serving in America’s Armed Forces. (Courtesy photo)

Children taking part in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors National Good Grief Camp in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day weekend, spend some time with a therapy dog. TAPS supports families and others grieving the death of a lost a loved one serving in America’s Armed Forces. (Courtesy photo)

Wilfred Smith, AFSPC deputy chief of airfield operations, spends time getting to know his mentee during a recent Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors event. Smith is in his first year volunteering with the group that aims to support families and others grieving the death of a lost a loved one serving in America’s Armed Forces. (Courtesy photo)

Wilfred Smith, AFSPC deputy chief of airfield operations, spends time getting to know his mentee during a recent Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors event. Smith is in his first year volunteering with the group that aims to support families and others grieving the death of a lost a loved one serving in America’s Armed Forces. (Courtesy photo)

Senior Master Sgt. James Baird, Air Force Space Command Radar and Airfield functional manager, poses with three of the children he has mentored since becoming a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors volunteer nine years ago. TAPS supports families and others grieving the death of a lost a loved one serving in America’s Armed Forces. (Courtesy photo)

Senior Master Sgt. James Baird, Air Force Space Command Radar and Airfield functional manager, poses with three of the children he has mentored since becoming a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors volunteer nine years ago. TAPS supports families and others grieving the death of a lost a loved one serving in America’s Armed Forces. (Courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, other family, and friends. According to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, the death of an active duty military member impacts 10 other people.

TAPS offers programs aimed at helping children and adults face times of loss and grieving. Through national and regional events like Good Grief camps, the organization pairs mentors with children and other family members who are experiencing the death of a military loved one. This helps those left grieving know they are not alone.

“Death isn’t talked about much, but here we can talk about it,” said Senior Master Sgt. James Baird, Air Force Space Command Radar and Airfield functional manager, “TAPS is a really good program for keeping that memory (of lost loved ones) alive.”

The support is available to all families immediately and as long as there is a need, regardless of the reason for the death they experience, said Kelly Griffith, Media Relations manager for TAPS.

One of the biggest things the program tackles is re-establishing communication between family members to facilitate the grief process, she said. Further, the programs allow families to maintain a connection to the military.

“Many lose that connection when they lose their hero,” Griffith said.

Connections, after all, are at the heart of what these volunteers are doing through TAPS. Many said they got involved because they have were also touched by the loss of a family member, comrade in arms or friend. Capt. Stephanie Webb, Strategic Command flight commander, said helping others in the midst of such a deeply emotional situation is powerful.

“Once you do it, you can’t stop,” she said.

Wilfred Smith, AFSPC deputy chief of airfield operations, echoed the sentiment. About four years ago she received an email seeking volunteers to mentor kids who lost a military family member and responded. Ever since she became what she calls a “TAPSaholic.”

Her first time volunteering was an eye-opening experience. She valued the chance to help kids shake the feeling of being alone during the complicated times of grief.

“I do it whenever I can,” Smith said. “The kids are incredible. It’s good to let them know the military has not forgotten about them. It’s a life changer.”

Baird began volunteering as a mentor and team leader nine years ago. During his first year mentoring he said he was a mess. More than once he was overcome with emotion, and even had to leave the room when a five-year-old boy began talking about his late father.

“They comprehend a lot. For suicides they sometimes blame themselves,” Baird said.

The tragedy of going through the death of a parent will be with the kids for the rest of their lives, Smith said. It’s all about helping them open up about the stressors they are going through.

“We don’t just give grief counseling,” Baird said. “We let them have fun with other kids who are going through the same thing.”

He said the children usually start out the camp quiet and somewhat withdrawn, but by the end they are interacting and talking to the other mentees and the mentors.

“It’s good for them and good for us as well,” Baird said. “I always leave every event with a full heart. Those kids ... talk about resilience.”

As evidence to the powerful emotional effects of the camp sessions, TAPS offers counselors for mentors during the camps. Many mentors and TAPS staff experienced the death of a loved one, or friend, and time spent listening to kids share their feelings can open old emotions for mentors too, Baird said.

Bonds made during the one-on-one time are meaningful to both mentor and mentee, Webb said.

“It’s heartwarming when a mentee remembers you after a year,” she said.

“They have a TAPS graduation from the kids program after they turn 18,” Baird said. “I know kids who have skipped their high school graduation to do the TAPS (graduation).” It is not unusual for these mentees to stay involved in the kids’ program, mentoring others who are experiencing the same things they did.

Connections with mentees last beyond the camps and events. Baird said mentors often stay in touch with mentees and tune into major life events like birthdays and graduations to make sure someone is there to support them.

Mentors and counselors are continually available through TAPS whenever the tragedy of a death strikes. It is important for survivors to know they are not alone during what can be a very difficult time.

For more information on TAPS, or to become a volunteer, visit www.taps.org.

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