FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- "The question is how. How do we as a nation prove worthy of the gift of freedom given to us by the men and women who fought and died' We must remember each and every one of them," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Over Memorial Day weekend hundreds of families of the fallen, including some from Fort Belvoir, gathered at the Gaylord National Convention Center at Washington National Harbor to attend the 15th Annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Seminar and Good Grief Camp for young survivors.

"I am a military wife. I am a military daughter. I am a military mother. I have buried a son; I have buried a father, both in service to this country," said Darcie Sims, grief management specialist with Grief, Inc. of Puyallup, Wash.

"Thirty three years ago there was nothing. Fifteen years ago there was TAPS," Sims said. "Fifteen years ago there were four tables of us. Look at us now. More than 250,000 families of us have been served by TAPS."

Capt. Marissa Alexander, commander, Army Entertainment Detachment, Fort Belvoir, attended the seminar.

Her husband, Sgt. Leroy E. Alexander, 27, of Dale City, Va., was killed near Urgun district in eastern Paktika province on June 3, 2005, when his convoy vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.

Alexander was pregnant with twins when she received the knock on her door.

"I was five months to the day," Alexander said. "I actually went in for an ultrasound to find out the sex of the babies that morning."

He was on his 3rd deployment, his first as a Green Beret assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group.

"I think he would be proud. I guess he's still looking down from heaven, happy to see that the kids are healthy, and that we're doing okay," Alexander said. "Even in death, he's taking care of us; and, I feel very fortunate for that."

TAPS attendees included the families of those killed in action, those who died by suicide, and those who perished in training accidents or from illnesses.

"Our stories are very different. Some of our loved ones fell on battlefields and were honored greatly; some battlefields are silent, and our loved ones fell on those as well," Sims said.

"Sometimes we're not sure if we even have the right to say they were heroes," she continued. "But don't you mistake it. Every single one of them, because they chose to serve our nation, is a hero.

"It isn't how they died; it's how they lived," she said.

Bereavement experts say for each active-duty military loss, about ten people are significantly impacted by the death. Often, they are children.

More than 250 children attended the Good Grief Camp for young survivors.

Twelve-year-old Brooke Nyren, of Fairfax, has been going to TAPS for five years. "My father died in a car accident overseas," Nyren said.

Staff Sgt. Nathaniel J. Nyren, 31, from Reston, Va. died in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 28, 2004. A civilian car driven by a 16-year-old Iraqi boy smashed into the side of a humvee, which rolled over multiple times. Nyren was behind the wheel of the vehicle, leading a convoy of military vehicles to a maintenance facility when the accident occurred.

The last time Brooke spoke to him was three days earlier - on Christmas. "I spent holidays with my dad. We don't have those together anymore," Nyren said.

"The people who I meet here at TAPS mean a lot to me; we get to run around together," Nyren said. "One of the activities that means the most to me is writing notes to my dad and releasing it on a balloon."

When asked what advice she would give to anyone coming to TAPS for the first time, Nyren replied, "I would tell them they're not alone; you're not the only one. This place is really comforting when you come here."

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Destini Campbell, Honor Guard, Bolling Air Force Base, has volunteered to be a mentor at the camp for four years.

She met Brooke three years ago. Since then, they have been inseparable. "Since I first met her, Brooke has really grown up. She has become a lot more vocal and open," Campbell said.

One of the camp activities the young survivors took part in was tracing their hands on construction paper for cut-outs to be placed in a wreath presented at Arlington Cemetery.

"I get my artistic side from my dad," said 7-year-old Noah Moehling. "My dad was a helicopter pilot. He crashed in a sand storm. There was a really bad fire. All they found were his dog tags."

Army CWO 2 Timothy W. Moehling, 35 , of Florida; assigned to Company A, 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, Giebelstadt, Germany; was killed in a UH-60 Black Hawk crash on Feb. 23, 2003, in Kuwait.

Like his dad, Noah wants to be a pilot. He wants to one day own a jet. "I miss him. My mom says I'm a lot like him," Noah said. "I didn't get to know him really well; I was little. My mom tells me a lot of stories about him."

This weekend was Noah's sixth year being a part of TAPS.

"I meet lots of kids. And seeing the TAPS members is my favorite part," he said.

Many of the volunteers who mentored the young survivors also lost someone.

"Mentors, you are survivors who have come through the darkness and, now, find strength to take your own experience and reach out to others," said Ellen Andrews, TAPS Online Community manager. "You are a gift beyond measure to the new survivors. You are a gift beyond measure to TAPS."

Andrews drew upon her own personal experience to assist others. She was engaged to U.S. Navy Lt. David J. Huber, who was killed in an air accident off the coast of Corpus Christi, Texas, shortly before their wedding in 1995.

"We've found ourselves in a place we never envisioned; yet, we are here. We walked into a room full of strangers, and started life-long friendships, friendships that start with the ability to look someone in the eye and say 'It's okay. I've been there, too,'" Andrews said.

Mullen concluded his address to the TAPS families by vowing to keep their memories alive.

"Each of you speaks in so many ways to how great they were, to the incredible impact they had on you and so many others. Hundreds of thousands of people they impacted, they will still impact, by virtue of those memories, the recognition, and the place each and every one of them has in your heart. I am and will be eternally grateful for TAPS," Mullen said.

"My promise to you is we will never ever forget. This is the most important time of year because it is the weekend we remember every sacrifice. I promise you, I will never, ever, forget," Mullen said.
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