Program gives hope to military families
When tragedy is unbearable, military families turn to TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. "We come here to meet other people in like situations," said Caitlin Needham.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Caitlin Needham's world collapsed when her son called her at work to tell her that there were military officers at the door and she needed to come home.
Her husband of 31 years, Master Sgt. Robb Needham, had died in Iraq.
Then, 18 months later, her 23-year-old son committed suicide.
When tragedy is unbearable, military families turn to TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
"We come here to meet other people in like situations," said Needham, 51, of Vancouver, Wash. Her voice was one among many Saturday at a lunch at Joint Base Lewis-McChord's North Chapel, where 70 adults and 25 child survivors gathered for the annual Puget Sound-area Military Survivor Seminar.
"Grief is a long process," said Needham, whose husband died in combat in 2006. And the other TAPS members provide support no matter how long it takes.
TAPS seminars like the one Saturday are held 24 times a year on military bases around the country. Survivors are welcome to attend any of them, and some at the Lewis-McChord event came from as far away as Arkansas.
What TAPS provides — sharing stories and grief in groups facilitated by volunteers, meeting survivors who live nearby, and the nationwide 800 number to put grieving survivors in touch with others at any time of day — has made the program important to military families in need, say members, of which there are now 24,000.
"TAPS understands me," said Needham. "They've given me the skills to get through each day."
One of the most painful adjustments for women who lose husbands is finding the "world is made for couples" and they are often either excluded or find life lonely, whether it's booking hotels for travel or being invited to the home of friends who are a couple.
"Now I can call Norma and tell her I've just found a great deal on a cruise," Needham said, referring to friend Norma Melo, whom she met through the program.
"We have each other," said Melo, 47, of Spanaway, Pierce County, whose husband died in Iraq in 2004.
"When you lose one life, you have to start another," she said.
Bonnie Carroll started TAPS after her brigadier general husband, Tom Carroll, was killed in a helicopter training accident and she found there was little support.
Now, "this is our family," she said. "I'm so grateful we now have a place to turn to, a place filled with love."
As lunch ended and the individual sessions began, groups were formed. One group was for fiancés and significant others who lost loved ones. Another was for parents who did. Others were for husbands and wives, and another for children. One was for those who have lost loved ones to suicide.
Some of the most important work may be among the children, said Master Sgt. Creed McCaslin, who works with children suffering the loss of a parent.
After the session, the children carried balloons outdoors, letters to their parents written on tissue paper, attached to the strings.
"I love you dad. I miss you. I wish you were here. I'm in kindergarten now," wrote Aly Wisenhunt, 5.
Trevor McCants, 14, and one of the oldest children there, wore a badge with his father's photo. "I love and miss you," he wrote on the tissue paper. "I wish you could be here now."
Then he released his balloon, and he watched it rise for a very long time.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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