Losing a parent or sibling who served in the military can be devastating to children, but they don't have to cope alone.
Thanks to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, more than 300 of war's youngest survivors attended the TAPS "Good Grief Camp" over Memorial Day weekend. Many of them have lost a father or brother serving with the military in Iraq or Afghanistan.
TAPS is a veterans service organization providing peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, seminars, case work assistance, and 24/7 crisis intervention care for all those affected by a death of a loved one in military service. The organization has held its Good Grief Camps for 14 years.
"We've found that children who have attended the Good Grief Camp felt a closeness to each other like many have never experienced, as they are surrounded by others their age who have [suffered] a similar loss," said Heather Campagna, director of the 2008 Good Grief Camp. "There is a comfort when someone says they understand, ... and for the first time, in many instances, they know it is true."
While attending the camp, children are paired one on one with a military mentor who becomes their "big brother" or "big sister" for the weekend. They gain their own age-appropriate peer support network and learn coping strategies for dealing with loss through educational activities.
The campers also connect their own family's experience with a national legacy of military service, learning how the nation honors those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country as they visit memorials and participate in ceremonies.
Organizers say the depth of loss children experience may not be fully recognized.
"When a child loses a parent or another relative in the military, often they suffer secondary losses that are not acknowledged in their lives," Campagna said. "They might move away from a home, be away from a military base when that is the only thing they have known, have to attend a new school, notice the ... empty chair at Thanksgiving dinner, and miss their confidante. Connecting with a mentor can be an empowering experience for a child who has already lost so much."
Mentors said the experience is rewarding.
"I loved working with the kids," said Marine Cpl. Phillip Vilkas. "The first time, I was exhausted at the end of each day, but I never felt more proud to be in uniform than when a child who has lost a loved one looks up at me."
TAPS will hold Good Grief Camps with a one-day curriculum in conjunction with an adult survivor seminar in nine locations around the United States this summer and fall. The events are planned for July 12 in Philadelphia, July 26 in Alabama, and Aug. 2 in Indiana. Dates for events in Ohio and Hawaii, as well as at Fort Lewis, Wash; Fort Stewart, Ga.; and Fort Bliss, Texas, are currently being scheduled.
A special camp and seminar designed for families who have lost contractors and U.S. government civilians working with the military will be held in Dallas on Aug. 23.
TAPS is a supporter of America Supports You, a Defense Department program connecting citizens and companies with servicemembers and their families serving at home and abroad.