COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After the folded American flag is presented and the military funeral service concludes, the journey of grieving the loss of a loved one begins for families all over the country.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. an organization that has been helping survivors of fallen military members for 20 years, held one of its regional grief seminars at Fort Carson over the weekend that culminated Sunday with the presentation of art collages created by participants to portray the painful and powerful impacts of an active duty soldier's death.
Members of about 150 families from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota formed a circle and held hands, many crying through smiles and giggles, to conclude the seminar that focused on supporting them through the deaths of military members who were their children, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers.
"A lot of it is identifying how they're strong, identifying what they're scared of, knowing that each experience that they've gone through is part of a larger picture and that in turn is part of the process of working themselves out of an all-consuming grief," said TAPS regional event coordinator, Emily Munoz.
Munoz, 36, has been with TAPS for nearly eight years and is a Boston resident who has made several trips to Colorado Springs and Fort Carson. She explained that the organization's mission is to create a space where family members of military personnel who were killed, whether in action or from any other cause, can find the support that they need to reach a place of normalcy in their lives.
"We have case-work advocates, access to local resources, education benefits, financial and legal advice," Munoz said. "We help them deal with the outside chaos of their daily lives, as well as the grief and inner chaos. We hope that TAPS helps them feel more collected and grounded."
After Mary Laureana's 21-year-old son, Nathaniel Aaron Aguirre, was killed by a sniper at a market in Baghdad, Iraq, she felt like there was nothing left to live for.
Two soldiers visited her home in Carrollton, Texas, on Oct. 23, 2006, to tell her that her son had died in ambush attack the day before. It was the 10th anniversary of her recovery from breast cancer.
She shut down emotionally and avoided her pain for over a year until she learned about TAPS and got involved with the organization, which she credits with making a drastic change in her life. "TAPS gave me my life back, I couldn't see anything in the future for me after Nathaniel died," Laureana said. "Now I love life, I am excited about all the adventures ahead of me, and I am not afraid. My son's death taught me that I don't have to be afraid anymore."
Laureana, 62, said the peer-to-peer mentorship offered by TAPS helped her verbalize the effects of her pain and come to terms with her grief, as well as regain a sense of community and family-driven support.
"I've found a new family that is totally different from my blood relatives. When you meet someone who is a survivor like yourself, there's a sort of communication that other people can't have with you," Laureana said. "Grief is a like a gash on your arm, and it's bleeding and it hurts like the dickens, but with time you'll get it to stop bleeding and heal a little at a time. Eventually the gash closes, you grow a scab, and then that turns into a scar. It's always there, you never get over it, but you can grow past it."
For Bonnie Carroll, her role as the founder of TAPS has been closely intertwined with her emotional journey as a military widow. Her husband, a 44-year-old Army officer, was killed along with seven other soldiers aboard a C-12 crash in Alaska in 1992.
Carroll, 57, said there were no organizations that brought bereaved families together to help them navigate the process of grieving the death of a military member.
Two decades later, she said, TAPS has grown into a national organization that continues to keep the promise all marines, airmen, soldiers and sailors make to each other — no one gets left behind.
"This year our theme was 'remember the love, celebrate the life and share the journey,' because we want everyone to know that they are not alone, and they don't have to walk this journey by themselves," Carroll said. "The love continues forever and that's a process that everyone has to go through. TAPS is here to help them move through that pain."