WASHINGTON — I often hear stories of military families helping each other, whether it’s through deployments or moves or just a tough day of parenting. Their support can range from the emotional, with an offer of a shoulder to cry on, to the more practical, such as help with a broken-down car or washing machine. These stories are touching and thankfully very common within military culture.
While each instance is impressive, sometimes this support is taken to an even greater level. I recently learned about a program, run by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, that offers military families support during one of their greatest times of need: after the loss of a loved one. The TAPS Peer Mentor Program pairs survivors who are further along in their journey of recovery with those who are experiencing a more recent loss.
“It’s someone saying, ‘My story is quieter now, and I want to help others along with the process,’ ” Debbie Dey, the mentor program manager, told me in a recent interview. Mentors offer everything from a shoulder to cry on to connections to helping resources, she told me.
The goal is to match people based on relationship first, followed by circumstances of death and branch of service. So, a mother of a soldier who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan will be paired, if possible, with another mother whose soldier son died in similar circumstances, she explained.
The similarities help to create common bonds, Dey said. “Survivors are so grateful to have an ear from someone who understands their loss,” she added.
In turn, the mentors often gain as much from the relationship as the person being mentored. “It’s very therapeutic on both sides,” Dey said. “And it can offer a stepping stone for both relationships. Their circumstances may be different, their relationship with a loved one may be different, but they’re offering each other hope for the future.”
I spoke with Meagan Staats, one of the TAPS mentors, to gain a better understanding of the program, and walked away with a greater appreciation of the meaning of sacrifice.
On Dec. 16, 2006, two soldiers came to Staats’ home to notify her of her husband’s death. Her husband, Army Staff Sgt. David Staats, had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. The devastation was immediate and life-altering, she said.
“My stomach still hurts when I see soldiers in Class As,” she said, referring to the dress uniforms the notification team members were wearing.
Staats’ thoughts were on her daughter, whom she had dropped off at a birthday party a few hours earlier, and how she was going to tell the 7‑year-old that her father was now dead. When her daughter arrived home, Staats told her that her father had died in Iraq. Her daughter went into her room and screamed into a pillow. “I felt so hopeless,” she said. “It was traumatic.”
Staats avoided counseling, and she and her daughter struggled with the weight of the loss. Having heard about TAPS, Staats and her daughter went to their first TAPS regional meeting eight months out from their loss, marking “the start of our healing,” she said.
Two years later, Staats was asked to become a mentor. After extensive online and in-person training, she was assigned to be a mentor for a woman in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I was scared to take that on, because I felt responsible and didn’t know if I could help her,” she said. “I weighed the decision for a few days.”
Staats decided to make the call and “just listened and listened,” she said. “Hopefully, that was helpful for her.”
She since has mentored nearly a dozen other widows through TAPS. She’s now mentoring two women, one of whom she has never met. But they exchange text messages and e‑mails frequently, she said.
Staats has benefited so much from her volunteer work she refers to it as self-serving. “We really help each other on our journey,” she said. “It’s healing to me to feel like I’m serving a purpose.”
Mentor relationships can become lasting ones, Dey said. She’s heard of families staying in close contact or taking vacations together. But whether they stay in touch for a month or for years, “the bond is very genuine,” she said. “It’s a beautiful and unique relationship.”
Staats said she’s just grateful for the opportunity to help others, and herself along the way.
“The loss is profound, but what we’ve gained is immeasurable,” she said. “I’ve never known friendships like this.”
For more on this program, visit the TAPS website or read my American Forces Press Service article “TAPS Mentors Support Families of Fallen.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)