By Erin Rogers, III Corps and Fort Hood Public AffairsJune 19, 2014
KILLEEN, Texas (June 19, 2014) -- The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Good Grief Camp Out welcomed 30 children ages 6-17 to the Parrie Haynes Ranch here, Thursday through Saturday.
Young family members of fallen Soldiers were invited to the annual four-day, three-night camp out for an inspiring and natural healing weekend alongside their peers and active-duty military mentors, most of whom are Fort Hood Soldiers.
"(TAPS) is committed to strengthening military families who've experienced the devastating loss of a loved one," said Tina Barrett, TAPS Good Grief Camp Out director. "Regardless of the cause of death, regardless of the branch of service, regardless of their relationship to that person, TAPS is there to strengthen and honor the family in any way we can for the years that follow that loss."
The camp out is one of many different support programs that exist nationally in an effort to move support and healing outdoors, creating a natural place for kids to gather and heal together.
These camps are capped at 40 attendees, Barrett said, small enough to keep an intimate setting.
"We blend creative outlets, physical outlets, time to talk, time to play, permission to be silent, cry if they want to cry, talk if they want to talk, laugh if they want to laugh, or just take a walk with their mentor and share stories or shed a few tears in silence," Barrett said. "We want the freedom to individualize the experience for each camper, because grief is not one-size-fits-all."
This year's camp out marks the fourth year for Kayleigh Runquist, an 11-year-old who lost her stepfather in Iraq, in 2006.
"I keep coming back every year because there's always new people to keep us company here and to meet and get to know," she said, "and they are always great people, and great friends, to help us get through what happened. There's always other people who are just like us -- people who understand us."
TAPS camp outs are different from other grief camps in that the directors make a point to match the campers with active-duty mentors for a specific reason -- the continued involvement in the military family.
"For a lot of these kids, they were deeply involved with the military community, living on base or on post with other military families," said Stephanie Swisher, TAPS youth programs manager. "And then when their loved one in the military died, the kids maybe don't feel like they're a part of that military family anymore, and so these mentors bring back that piece for the kids."
For the mentors at the camp, this experience is a way to change a child's life.
"I like the fact that we get to bring in a new perspective to the lives of these kids," said Pfc. Ian Ramsey, a camp mentor assigned to the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. "We don't know each other; I am essentially a stranger to them in the beginning of camp. This means I have no preconceived notions about how they're supposed to act, or how they're supposed to handle their grief, so they get to be whoever they want to be. They don't have to be anybody around me but themselves."
Ramsey and Barrett said that being a part of this camp is both enjoyable, and very eye-opening, with Barrett adding that she is constantly impressed by the resiliency of the children.
"It just restores that deep belief in human resiliency of not just surviving, but thriving after adverse circumstances," she said. "Watching these kids and how strong they are and how they lean on each other is incredible."
Brad Gallup, TAPS team grief facilitator and a retired Air Force officer, said the camps have been very successful since their inception, and they are extremely powerful in healing for children who take on the role of being a rock for their families.
"A lot of these kids automatically take on the role of being strong for their family after a loss, because the military is all about taking care of our own and being strong," Gallup said. "Here, they can let go of having to be so strong all the time and be around people who understand. They can have fun here and they can also cry here. It's about healing."
"Unfortunately, their amazing parents and family are also grieving, and so their primary support has also experienced a profound loss," Barrett added. "This gives these kids a chance to step away and be surrounded by understanding."
Blending traditional camp activities, like active games, cooperative games, hikes, variety shows campfires and more, with opportunities to honor their fallen service member is the key to success for TAPS Good Grief Camp Outs each year. Each of the campers has unlimited opportunities to share their stories with a mentor or with each other, in an environment conducive to healing and connecting.
"These (fallen service members) are America's warriors, these are our heroes. This is a way to honor their legacy, and really take care of their legacy for them," Gallup said. "And we're letting these kids know that loved one whom they lost is never forgotten. It's powerful and healing."