For the first time, families of troops who die while on active duty can get grief counseling through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA’s Office of Readjustment Counseling is counseling families at 206 community-based veterans centers throughout the States and in Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, said program analyst Greg Harms.

There are no veterans centers overseas and thus no face-to-face services for families there, but they can use the program if they are in the States. Also, they can receive phone-based services by calling (202) 273-9116, or e-mail services at, he said.

“We’re currently working on setting up an 800 number that won’t be [staffed] 24 hours a day, but it would be at no cost. We wouldn’t be able to do anything in person [for overseas families], but if they needed to talk to someone, we’d be able to put them in touch with somebody.”

Services are limited to spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings and children of active-duty military, including activated guardsmen and reservists.

So far, 412 military family members of 276 servicemembers have sought counseling. Of those who died, most died during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the service is not limited to deaths in a combat zone, Harms said. As of Wednesday, the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq alone surpassed 1,500.

Combat-related death has the potential for creating complicated mourning, said Terry Martin, associate professor of psychology and thanatology (the study of death and dying) at Hood College in Frederick, Md. For starters, such a death is both “sudden and, in fact, a preventable death,” he said.

Added to grieving the loss of a loved one, families face changes from loss of housing or housing privileges to separation from friends, moving and changing schools, he said. In some cases, the deceased might have been the sole or most important source of income.

“In the best of all possible worlds, grief counseling would be immediately available, though most survivors go through an initial period of shock and usually cannot benefit from therapeutic intervention,” Martin said. “I would suggest that access to grief therapy be available at least for the first 12 months following the death.”

The VA-based services are available the moment the family member seeks help, Harms said. There is no limit on the number of sessions a member can receive. “It’s whatever is deemed clinically appropriate by the staff.”

The VA has “blitzed” the information to all agencies that have contact with the families, Harms said.

And it has partnered with peer-mentoring services offered by the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, better known as TAPS, which offers grieving families and loved ones peer-to-peer support, but not the professional, clinical counseling services provided by the VA.

TAPS provides “one of the oldest forms of human coping and survival,” said director Bonnie Carroll. “It’s about connecting those who have been there and through it and can speak from the heart with those who need the support.”

TAPS has about 250 members who met the criteria of being one year beyond their own loss and have taken the program’s basic training sessions to become peer mentors, Carroll said. Some of its members are overseas.

In its 14 years, TAPS has a database of about 10,000 people who received varying levels of services, provided in person, over the telephone and via e-mail, however the two parties agree to correspond, she said.

Also unlike the VA program, the services are available to anyone who knew the deceased servicemember, be it family, friend or significant other.

People can contact the organization 24 hours a day at 800-959-TAPS (800-959-8277); information is available on the Internet at

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