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thedrifter
02-10-08, 11:00 AM
Sunday, February 10, 2008
TAPS helps military survivors
Iris Lewis has turned her grief into a mission, comforting others through TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
By CHRISTA WOODALL
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER


“Get a life, Mom,” was a favorite phrase of Iris Lewis's children, Samuel and Rebekah.

Samuel died in the Army while stationed in Germany in 1990. Two years later, 17-year-old Rebekah died of leukemia.

Iris Lewis has turned her grief into a mission, comforting others as a mentor with TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

“For parents, the pain never ends – you just learn to live with it, and you make the wise choice to move on,” the Orange resident said. “I have moved on with my life, and I honor my son's life by doing things I know he'd be proud of.”

Lewis was among the 200 military survivors from across the country who gathered at Camp Pendleton this weekend for a TAPS Survivors Seminar and Good Grief Camp for children.

Some traveled from as far away as North Carolina. Many of the attendees wore buttons with pictures of the loved ones they'd lost – sons, fathers, husbands, wives.

TAPS began after Bonnie Carroll's husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, was killed in an Army accident in 1992.

Not finding a united support group, Carroll filled the need through TAPS, which now hosts events for military survivors across the country each week.

“We're for everybody, with a focus on remembering the love, celebrating the life and sharing the journey,” she said. “This is a place where we can speak a shared language of grief and find hope, comfort, support and resources.”

The Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization reaches out to the nearly 4,000 American military families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The support network has grown to include spouses, parents, children, extended family and friends nationwide.

A military loss is more than the death of a loved one – it's a loss of identity, and TAPS helps the families connect with one another while reconnecting with their military roots, TAPS media coordinator Ami Neiberger-Miller said in a telephone interview.

Nieberger-Miller understands the loss too well – she found TAPS after her brother died in combat in Iraq.

“Unless you've lived through it, it's hard to articulate,” she said.

The group focuses on families' needs and next steps, Nieberger-Miller said.

While adults gathered in support groups, children and teens vented their feelings at “Good Grief Camp,” joined by TAPS volunteers, Marines and “Jarhead” actor Brian Geraghty.

The youths released red, white and blue balloons into the cloudless blue sky, each carrying with it a letter written to a fallen loved one.

Regional Good Grief Camp director Tina Saari helped the children open up about how they deal with their anger, fear, sadness and guilt. She asked the children in her group what makes them mad.

“That my uncle died when he was supposed to come visit me,” said Ebony Joy Townes, 8.

“George Bush,” chimed in Mercedez Zanutto, who was at TAPS in memory of her father.

The activities help the children deal with their feelings while finding support from peers, Saari said.

“We have kids who have never told anyone even that their dad has died,” she said. “Oftentimes at school, no one else has really experienced a military loss like they have, so the children don't reach out… This gives them a safe environment – they know now that they're not alone.”

Although the common bond through TAPS is loss, Carroll emphasized the group's focus on celebrating life.

“Yes, our loved ones died, but they also lived, and they led amazing lives,” she said. “They were at the absolute peak of life, doing what they loved and for a greater cause.”

More information about TAPS is available at www.taps.org.

Ellie