When is it OK to smile again? To have fun? To move on?
Such questions can perplex military families who are grieving the loss of a loved one. The questions are the same, whether the death occurred in combat or at home, whether the result of an accident or suicide.
Help with the answers came at a free family camp last weekend sponsored by Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a national group that provides compassion and care for families of the fallen.
About 100 participants — parents and children, grief counselors, and military volunteers who served as mentors for young campers — gathered at IslandWood outdoor learning center on Bainbridge Island.
Campers came from Washington state and around the nation to search for hope and healing in the 255-acre wooded setting.
“This is a safe place for emotions to come up,” said TAPS president Bonnie Carroll, an Army widow who founded TAPS after her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, died in a military plane crash in Alaska in 1992. “We tell kids it’s OK to talk about the challenges they’re facing, and that we are going to help and support them. At the same time, parents are able to talk with others in similar circumstances.
“The whole feel of the event is to remember that we love someone, and we grieve because we love.”
Last weekend, evidence of that grief was as close as the pins campers wore, each bearing a photo of their lost loved one. And while the weekend included plenty of laughter and outdoor fun, there also were moments when emotions bubbled to the surface and counselors stepped in to support kids and parents.
For 9-year-old Ian Culp, one of the best parts was enjoying FOB time, which stands for “feet on your bunk.” It was a time for unwinding and quiet reflection.
“That was pretty comfortable and relaxing,” he said.
Asked what she liked best about the weekend, 7-year-old Sofia O’Brien simply smiled and answered: “Everything.”
Sofia came to camp from upstate New York with her mom, Jamie O’Brien.
Jamie, whose husband, Army Sgt. Christopher O’Brien, died at home in 2013, said she got involved with TAPS this year when Sofia came home from school one day and said she was the only one in her class without a dad.
“I don’t know where we would be today without TAPS,” O’Brien said.
Ian’s mom, Elizabeth Culp, brought Ian and his 7-year-old brother, Westley, to TAPS camp from their home in Yelm.
She said her husband, Army Sgt. Brian Culp, seemed to be coping well in the initial months after his return from Afghanistan. But in May 2014, he took his own life.
Even though she had no immediate family in Yelm, Culp decided to stay after her husband’s death. And she’s glad she did.
“The local church (Crossroads Covenant Community Church) embraced my boys and myself,” Culp said. “The church and the schools wrapped themselves around us.”
Culp buried her husband in a national cemetery in his home state of Texas. When she returned to Yelm, she found a welcome kit from TAPS inviting her to connect when she felt ready. She learned that within the organization, there’s a special suicide survivor group for families.
Culp said she was hesitant to join at first, fearing that such a group would keep her mired in sadness. She finally brought her boys to a TAPS family event in Florida. Her sons were initially reluctant.
But in the end, she said, “They had a blast. It was the first time they were able to meet other kids who were in the same boat.”
Culp said TAPS has not only helped her handle her roller-coaster emotions, but has also helped her sons learn ways to honor their dad.
Silvia Buoniconti lost her son, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Frank Buoniconti, in a 2011 helicopter collision that occurred during a training exercise at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She came to camp with one of Frank’s kids, her 14-year-old granddaughter Zoe Buoniconti.
Silvia, who lives in Colorado, is president of her area chapter of Gold Star Mothers, an organization for women who have lost sons and daughters to military service. Her husband, also named Frank, volunteers with a group that helps service members who have suffered traumatic brain injury. And Frank’s widow, Kryste, founded an organization called Live Your Love Loud, which helps raise money for military families who want to adopt children. Kryste and Frank were in the process of adopting a child when Frank was killed.
“That’s how we honor our son,” Silvia said. “By helping.”
Zoe’s family lived in DuPont until recently. She said she was glad to meet other teens at camp who share the experience of losing a military parent.
“Today we wrote about the person we lost, and the things we want to do to move on with our lives,” Zoe said.
She has a detailed plan mapped out. She wants to become a lifeguard and join the National Guard while she’s in high school. Then she plans to join ROTC in college. She wants to work first in military intelligence, than as a behavioral analyst for the FBI.
Over time, her grandmother said, the pain of losing someone changes, but it never leaves.
“We are all still healing,” she said.“You try to cram things in around the hole that you feel, but you can’t fill that hole.”
Since 1994, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors has offered support to more than 50,000 family members of fallen service men and women. TAPS provides peer support, grief and trauma resources, seminars for adults and camps for children, casework assistance and more. TAPS offers a 24/7 Military Survivor Helpline at 800-959-TAPS (8277). Learn more at www.taps.org.