TAPS: More than a song

Fish splashed, geese chattered and long-legged herons skimmed the surface of the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., as tour buses began rolling into the visitors’ parking at the nearby Lincoln Memorial.

White marble and limestone structures on the National Mall contrasted with red flowers, bright flags and a blue sky. The alabaster city gleamed, undimmed and even enhanced by human tears that Sunday morning.

Two of the buses carried placards reading “Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: Caring for the Families of our Fallen Heroes.” The passengers who disembarked had more in common than their red T-shirts. Each had lost a family member who served in the military. They came from as far away as Hawaii to remember their loved ones together.

Over Memorial Day weekend, about 2,000 people participated in the 18th annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (or TAPS) National Military Survivor Seminar. The events included a speech by the vice president, a Good Grief Camp for children and this gathering at the Lincoln Memorial.

The group I encountered there had badges of honor: photo buttons of those they had lost, ribbons listing their service branch and relationship. One couple wore “parent” ribbons. A young mom with a toddler and an infant wore a “spouse” ribbon.

Suzie had several ribbons.

“Does this mean you lost a child and your husband?” I asked her.

“Yes," she said, touching the ribbons that read “parent” and “spouse.” She said her teenage son had taken his own life months before his Army father died of cancer.

She wore an “Army” ribbon for her husband of 27 years. Another ribbon said “Marines” for her oldest son, now serving in Afghanistan. He had called her that morning, and she talked about how happy she was to hear his voice.

Laurie’s ribbons said “Navy” and “sibling,” and her button had a picture of her brother. A Navy reservist herself, Laurie also serves as a peer mentor for TAPS.

She and Suzie talked animatedly about those they had lost, remembering what made them laugh and what made them angry.

Being with other bereaved families is a relief, Suzie said. It’s good not to have to explain, to be with people who just know and understand. TAPS events, counselors and peer mentors are intended to provide that safe environment. The organization reaches out to anyone who has lost a loved one in military service, regardless of location or cause of death.

Providing more than a common bond, TAPS is equipped to give practical help as well, such as grief and trauma resources and information, casualty casework assistance and crisis intervention.

“Civilians just think we’re taken care of when a family loses a military member,” Laurie said. Although there are programs in place — government, military and private — for bereaved families, the support doesn’t happen automatically. When families are overwhelmed by a loss, they may not know where to turn. Organizations such as TAPS can help a family locate and navigate available resources.

TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll led the group to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where they observed a moment of silence for their loved ones and sang “God Bless America.” There were tears and smiles.

Bonnie stood out from the crowd in her white T-shirt that day, but she wore a photo and ribbons like the rest. She created the organization after her Army husband was killed in a 1992 plane crash.

It was Suzie’s first time to be with other grieving military families since her staggering losses only months earlier. She measures her progress in small steps, like being able to talk about her loss and use what she calls the “S-word," suicide.

“Now I can say the words,” she said. “I still feel like I’m going to throw up, but I can say the words.”

One of Suzie’s ribbons said simply “survivor,” another S-word that she is learning to use.

For more about TAPS, visit taps.org.

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