Several weeks ago, CSM sent out an e-mail about a program called the T.A.P.S. Good Grief Camp. T.A.P.S. stands for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. It's a national organization committed to supporting the families of military members who have died. It is for all branches of service, all ranks, and all circumstances of death. For the 18th year, T.A.P.S. hosted the National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors over Memorial Day Weekend. They were looking for mentors, preferably on Active Duty, to work one-on-one with kids who lost a military parent or sibling. I wasn't sure what to expect, but since I happened to be free that weekend, I took the plunge and signed up.
I walked into the mentor training session on Thursday a bit nervous. I sat down at a table with several other people in civvies, and we made small-talk until it was time to begin. We met the Founder and President of T.A.P.S., Bonnie Carroll, who lost her husband in an Army C-12 crash in 1992. Her staff took us through a powerpoint explaining the rules and goals of the Good Grief Camp. The kids were grouped together by age, and we mentors were invited to pick a group that we felt suited to. The participants ranged in age from four all the way up to eighteen years. They were short mentors in the 15-16 year old group, so I wandered over to that table and took a seat. We received a bit more instruction, but wouldn't find out who we were paired with until the next day.
On Friday morning, all the mentors in my group gathered in a small room on the first floor of the hotel. Our group leader, Vicki, went over the schedule for the day, and mentioned a young man who was really into band. She thought he and I would be a good fit. I was relieved to finally know who my mentee would be, and to know we would share some common ground from the start.
A few hours later, I met Tyler. He is smart, talented, and kind. He plays the oboe in his high school band, but also marches on clarinet and plays several other instruments. Tyler's father, SSG Loleni Gandy, died in Iraq on November 19th, 2010. Tyler agreed to let me share some pictures of our weekend on this blog.
Some of the mentors and mentees have been attending T.A.P.S. for several years. Both Tyler and I were first-timers, so I think we were unsure of how this whole "Grief Camp" thing was going to work. Once all the mentees arrived, Vicki had us play a standing game to see what we had in common. "Who likes chocolate?" Most of the room stood. "Who has eaten anchovies?" A few of us stood in support of salty little fish. "Who is here becasue their Dad died?" Most of the kids stood.
Wow. What a powerful moment. Equally as powerful were the few who stood because they lost a mother or a brother. Most of the teens later admitted that it was comforting to finally be in a room with people their own age that understood exactly what they were going through. There were many helpful activities over the course of the weekend, but that peer connection is the real power of T.A.P.S.
Rolling Thunder is an organization that works with T.A.P.S. to provide support for these kids. If you aren't familiar with their mission, Rolling Thunder is a non-profit group of volunteers committed to 100% accountability for Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action. They are probably best-known for their annual Memorial Day demonstration in Washington D.C. Thousands of bikers travel on their motorcycles from all over the country to rally around the POW/MIA cause. Many of these men and women are veterans themselves.
For several years now, bikers from Rolling Thunder have gathered in front of the T.A.P.S. hotel to interact with our young survivors. They proudly show off their rides, allow kids to climb on and take pictures, hand out gifts and patriotic tokens, and generally show their support for the sacrifice these families have made. It is awesome to see so much positive energy and love given so freely. Here's Tyler chatting with two members of Rolling Thunder.
There were many sweet motorcycles, but this one was my favorite. The motto of Rolling Thunder promises, "We Will Not Forget." When I walked by this solemn tribute to Arlington, I struggled for a few moments to swallow the lump in my throat. A close second was the bike with "Bin Laden Sucks" emblazoned on the rear.
On Saturday, the whole camp traveled to the mall for lunch, (the DC Mall, not the shopping mall). After scarfing some pizza, the mentors were turned loose with the kids, who each had the opportunity to choose what they wanted to see and do. We ended up with a group that wanted to see the Natural History Museum.
Tyler was interested in the exhibit on ancient Egyptian artifacts, which was conveniently located next to my favorite exhibit, the Orkin Insect Zoo! Ty wasn't so sure about the creepy-crawlies at first, but soon we were all oohing and ahhing at the crazy creatures. I talked him into holding a caterpillar that some volunteers were passing around. It was surprisingly soft and adorable.
Next, we went inside the Butterfly Pavilion. It was beautiful. Although the butterflies weren't swarming us by the hundreds, as I had imagined, they were tucked away everywhere. If you looked closely among the flowers, there the little beauties were, just hanging out and occasionally flying over to one of the humans to make a perch.
A beautiful, dark butterfly flew right over to Tyler and landed on his hand. It was very cool, and one of my favorite moments of the weekend.
I loved getting to know Ty, and he taught me many things, particularly about his culture. Tyler's family is from American Samoa, and he lived there himself for a time. We talked alot about his unique upbringing and the rich tradition of Polynesian values. I'm sure I annoyed him by asking so many questions, but I love learning about people and places. Tyler's father is Toa o Samoa, a Warrior of Samoa. We stopped by the WWII Memorial and snapped some pictures in front of the wreath of American Samoa. Thank you, Tyler, for sharing the pride and knowledge of your heritage with me.
A fellow military bandsman, SFC Don Francisco of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, was a mentor and group leader at T.A.P.S. His (slightly modified) uniform and patriotic piping was a big hit with the kids. Tyler plays a bit of flute/piccolo, and he enjoyed listening to SFC Francisco's antics on the "Garden Hose Fife."
One of the final events of the Good Grief Camp was a massive balloon release that took place on Sunday morning. Everyone was invited to write a letter to their lost loved one. I chose to write to Meghan. We gathered outside, received a red, white or blue balloon, and tied our letter to it. We waited for the right moment, then simultaneously released the balloons. It was a very personal moment for most of us. As a whole, the group was quiet, reflective.
There was a brief, subdued cheer as the balloons rose into the sky. Here is Tyler's balloon at the beginning of its journey.
Everyone craned their necks to see the balloons float up and away. It was a beautiful little activity. Less emotional than others, but still full of meaning.
As we wrapped up our final day together, the teens shared some final impressions, thanked mentors, exchanged contact info, and said their farewells. It was amazing how much more comfortable we all were after just three days. The laughs and smiles were easier, and the conversations less forced. When you share some of your deepest, most emotional thoughts with another person, it really does connect you. Humans are social creatures, and the tragic loss of a parent or sibling, along with the change it brings, can be very isolating. T.A.P.S. is a unique opportunity to receive support and love from the military community. In many cases, the kids come back year after year, eventually learning to lend support to others who are newer to their grief.
When I volunteered to do this, I wasn't sure if my presence would really make an impact. After all, I've never deployed, and both my parents are still alive. Would these kids, who have been through so much, even want to talk to someone like me? I found that it didn't matter who the mentor was. We had a retired Colonel, a young member of the Honor Guard, an Airborne Ranger, and everything in between, from all branches of service. We are all tied together by service to our country, and we all wanted to listen and be there for these young adults. I learned so much from their stories. I saw the faces of their loved ones on the closing ceremony slideshow, and I cried and ached for the loss our country has endured over so many years of war. I feel closer to my brothers and sisters in uniform, and I am fiercely proud of the strength of our military families. There is no way to explain how grateful I am for this opportunity. I hope some of you will volunteer with me next year. There is no way you could possibly regret it.