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Fallen soldiers' families get Pro Bowl experience through TAPS, NFL

Families of fallen troops received a special weekend getaway centered around the NFL’s Pro Bowl in Orlando, Florida, this weekend. The trip was made possible by the NFL and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.

COURTESY OF TRAGEDY ASSISTANCE PROGRAM FOR SURVIVORS

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 27, 2018

Johana Melbert felt alone.

It seemed to her that no one could understand what she and her family were going through after the death of husband, Staff Sgt. Jose Melbert, in a motorcycle accident near Fort Lee, Virginia, in 2011.

"I thought I was the only person this happened to," she said.

But Melbert wasn't alone. And this weekend, an organization that has provided support since the loss of her husband has helped give her and her family a precious gift.

Through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, the Melbert family is in Orlando, Florida, for the NFL's annual all-star game, the Pro Bowl.

The family, who now live in Raleigh and include two boys — Jose Jr. and Jordan — are one of 20 military families who have lost loved ones and were provided a special getaway centered around the game.

The NFL provided grants to TAPS to pay for the weekend, which involves families from across the country and as far as England.

On Friday morning, the families gathered for breakfast before heading off to Disney World. They were greeted during their meal by Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva — a former Army Ranger who will start in his first Pro Bowl on Sunday.

Villanueva posed for pictures and signed autographs for the Melberts.

"This is like the biggest deal ever," Johana Melbert said, shortly after the breakfast.

TAPS officials said the Pro Bowl event was organized through their sports program, teams4taps, which has worked with more than 150 sports teams since 2013 to create meaningful opportunities for the families of fallen troops. This is the second year TAPS has partnered with the NFL to send families to the Pro Bowl.

"TAPS is grateful to the NFL for its longstanding commitment to the men and women of our armed forces," said Bonnie Carroll, TAPS founder and president. "For our families who have lost loved ones in military, the NFL has offered extraordinary experiences where they have had the opportunity to honor their fallen hero and cheer for their favorite teams."

TAPS is one of the NFL's Salute to Service charitable partners. Officials said the league is proud to work with the organization and honored to provide memorable experiences to the families of fallen troops.

"We hope that TAPS families invited to this year's Pro Bowl Week festivities will create long-lasting memories together and enjoy everything Orlando has to offer," said NFL senior vice president of social responsibility, Anna Isaacson. "Celebrating the families of servicemembers who sacrificed for this country is just one way to honor their legacy."

Melbert said the family learned they were chosen for the trip in early December.

"That was an amazing early Christmas gift," she said.

A native of Colombia, Melbert said she learned about American football from her late husband, who was originally from Alexandria, Louisiana, and a long-time fan of the New Orleans Saints.

Melbert also adopted the Saints as her favorite team and hopes to meet quarterback Drew Brees over the weekend as the veteran play-caller participates in his 11th Pro Bowl.

"I think he's the best quarterback ever," she said.

Her sons are fans of the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants, respectively, but Melbert said their allegiances aren't firm.

"I feel like every year they change teams as they go," she said.

Regardless, the kids and Melbert are equally excited for their special weekend.

"It's amazing," she said. "You come here and you feel out of this world. They love you. They love your children. They do anything for you."

Melbert said TAPS has been there for her family since her husband's death.

She attended a TAPS widows retreat in California several years ago, where she learned that others had similar life experiences and met mentors to help her through difficult times. She said those mentors are there for her always, not just for special events.

"They're here for us," Melbert said. "They're honoring our loved ones."

But the support for her children is what she appreciates most.

In Raleigh, Melbert said, her sons go to a school where probably 95 percent of the kids have a mom and a dad. Through TAPS events, the boys can connect to other families who can relate to what they've experienced.

"The kids play together and we tell all the stories," Melbert said of being with others families of fallen troops. "And it's OK. We've got each other. This is a journey we're taking together."

On Saturday, the family will travel to ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex, where they will watch the NFC team practice and meet with players for lunch. On Sunday, they have tickets to attend the Pro Bowl.

"It's just amazing how these people, after a tragedy, they just want to lift us up," Melbert said. "They want to show us that we're not alone and we don't have to be alone."

The Pro Bowl trips are one of several ways the NFL plans to pay tribute to the military and military families in the next two weeks.

Officials announced Thursday that 15 Medal of Honor recipients would be honored during Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.

The Medal of Honor is the U.S. military's highest award for valor. Honorees include at least two former Fort Bragg soldiers — Bennie Adkins, who received the medal for service in Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group; and Roger Donlon, who received the medal for service in Vietnam with the 7th Special Forces Group.

NFL officials said the Medal of Honor recipients will participate in the official on-field coin toss ceremony before the Philadelphia Eagles take on the New England Patriots.

The league also will host a special Military Appreciation Day as part of the Super Bowl Experience Driven by Genesis on Tuesday in Minneapolis.

And on Feb. 3, the NFL and USAA will recognize members of the NFL community for their commitment to supporting the military and military families with the 2017 Salute to Service Award.

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©2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
Visit The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.) at www.fayobserver.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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