USA — Family Matters Blog: TAPS Program Supports Families of Fallen

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)

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