FORT BLISS, Texas - Strangers from across Texas gathered in the sunlit auditorium of the Fort Bliss Youth Plex united by a common experience: the loss of a loved one. Colleen Thigpen, her best friend Karen Neugent and her two sons Maverick and Matthew made the drive up from Houston to attend the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors seminar and the Good Grief Camp for children Feb. 20.

While most of the volunteers, organizers, and participants were wearing red t-shirts with the TAPS logo and motto, the Thingpen family was wearing homemade t-shirts with a family photo of three brothers. The oldest brother in the photo, Michael Collins, is wearing his Class A dress uniform, flanked by his two younger brothers.

Michael Collins was killed in motorcycle accident in 2008 while he was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, a few weeks before his first scheduled deployment to Iraq. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of corporal.

"Michael was a very, very safe person," said Thigpen. "He very cautiously approached everything in his life and that's why it was so hard to understand how he had died on his motorcycle."

Collins was wearing all of his Department of Defense required personal-protection equipment at the time of the accident.

"He was excited. It was about to be his birthday," said Thigpen. "He just made an error and couldn't make the turn."

Thigpen described her son's teenage years as "troubled" and that he struggled to decide what he wanted to do with his life until one day, out of the blue, he called and told her that he wanted to be a Soldier. She said that she had never been so proud of her son.

"He loved being a Soldier. He absolutely loved being a Soldier," said Thigpen, as her eyes watered. "He just wanted to serve his country and be part of something bigger than himself. He turned from a boy to a man."

Since his death, Thigpen said that she has had a difficult time adjusting to life without her son. She decided to bring her family to the TAPS seminar to meet other families that have suffered similar losses and also to celebrate his 25th birthday.

TAPS is a national organization created in 1994 that offers assistance to anyone that has lost a loved one while serving in the military. The program offers 24-hour support, including tragedy assistance by the phone, the Internet or in regional seminars. According to the TAPS website, it has helped more than 25,000 surviving family members, casualty officers, and caregivers.

"(TAPS) lets me know that it's ok, and that we'll find another path in life because nothing is the same," said Thingpen.

Bonnie Carroll, the Executive Director of TAPS, opened the seminar by having the group sing happy birthday to Michael. An important part of TAPS, she said, was celebrating the life.

"They lived amazing lives," said Carroll. "That's what this day is about: to remember the lives of those we loved. To develop strategies to cope with the loss, to understand that death ends life, but it doesn't end a relationship."

Several Fort Bliss leaders and their wives were present to show support and volunteer their time. Maj. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, Fort Bliss commanding general, was also present to commemorate the occasion.

"This is our first formal TAPS event, and it's something that we want to do annually from here on out," said Bromberg. He noted the importance of a sustained commitment to the families of departed servicemembers.

"We're with you, not just as a military but as a nation," said Bromberg.
The commanding general also stressed the importance of getting information about TAPS out to the local community and making sure that a language barrier might not limit families from attending future seminars and events.

The focus of the TAPS seminar was on making connections with others who have lost a loved one, sharing grief and decreasing isolation, learning positive coping skills, and finding a plan that works for the future. Children were separated from their families and divided into two different age groups to take part in the Good Grief Camp portion of the program.

The children took part in a variety of activities that encouraged them to share, remember, and celebrate their loved ones.

"It's a unique situation here," said Tina Saari, director of TAPS Regional Programs. "Because at school they might not have had anyone that lost a parent, especially in the military, so this is pretty special because they can come together with other children who had experienced that same loss."

Saari first started volunteering with TAPS seven years ago when her husband deployed to Iraq for the first time. She said that it was important for Soldiers to volunteer with TAPS, especially to work with children, because being around Soldiers is something they often miss the most.

"It's great to have Soldier mentors here so that they can see that the military still supports them," said Saari.

One of the Soldier mentors was 1st Lt. Joel McMichael, 5th Armored Brigade, 1st Army Div. West.

"I had heard of the TAPS program back when I was with the Ohio National Guard and I hadn't had an opportunity to get involved until now," said McMichael, who has been in the Army for more than four years.

"It's a good cause and a good way to spend a Saturday," he said.

The culmination of the event was the balloon release. The children were encouraged to write letter to their loved ones and those letters are attached to balloons and released into the sky.

Matthew and Maverick Thigpen were among the crowd of children on the soccer field. Matthew was the last one to let his balloon go, momentarily caught up in the joy of chasing after the other balloons as they floated away, but in the end he was able to wish his brother happy birthday in a special way.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16