By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneFebruary 18, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Hanging onto Beth Allmandinger's balloon was a message that said simply "Love ya, Bubba."
That love, still very much alive and hopeful, was sent to her son, Cpl. Aaron Allmandinger, who earned the Combat Action Badge, two Army Commendation Medals, the Iraqi Campaign Medal with Campaign Star and Global War on Terrorism Medal, among other medals, for his 15 months of deployed service during Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2006-08. While deployed, Allmandinger conducted patrols from Combat Outpost X-Ray in Taji, Iraq, and survived a large, well-organized enemy ambush in Falahat, Iraq, during which his actions contributed to the survival of his squad.
Sadly, the Indiana native was killed on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2008, while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. After returning from a one-month training mission, his truck caught on fire and exploded in his carport. Poisonous gases from the explosion killed the 22-year-old Soldier.
On Feb. 5, Beth Allmandinger along with her husband Terry and their 5-year-old granddaughter - their Soldier's daughter - Taylor released balloons for Allmandinger in the parking lot adjacent to Bicentennial Chapel. Their balloons were among about 140 red, white and blue balloons released in memory of the military's fallen. The Balloon Lift-Off culminated a day of survivor mentoring and bonding that was part of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Seminar brought to Redstone Arsenal for the weekend by Army Community Service's Survivor Outreach Services.
"This is such a great program for us," said Beth Allmandinger, who attends several TAPS events every year. "It's good for us to be around people in the same situation that we are in. It's family to us. We've grown to be a family with other survivors."
Each family represented at the TAPS event had their own story of loss, many associated with Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. Family members met in small groups to learn from each other on living and coping with that loss. Children were assigned Soldier mentors from the Ordnance Munitions and Electronics Maintenance School and the NCO Academy to spend the day together as they remembered their beloved Soldier, and had fun hanging out, playing together and just being kids.
"It was a wonderful weekend for these survivors," said Emily McFall, the coordinator for SOS who had set a goal last year to bring TAPS to Redstone in early 2011. "I hope this is a beginning of healing for those who hadn't already had something like this. Hopefully, it's a starting point for opening up and sharing with others, and making connections.
"For those who have been to other TAPS events, I hope this is another stepping stone that is helping them to process through their journey of grief. I hope it leads them closer to a more accepting place, a more tolerating place, so they are able to live with the death."
McFall, whose own husband Sgt. Tom McFall died May 28, 2007, in Baghdad, Iraq, from wounds sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated near his position during a dismounted patrol, and the couple's three children have participated in TAPS events offered at other installations. This time, she was a participant while also making sure the Redstone TAPS event went smoothly for other survivors. Every time she attends a TAPS event, McFall learns more about living with her own loss. This event was no different.
"Your loved one is dead. Nothing can change that. But he also lived. It's important to remember your loved one and what he brought to your life when he was here. It's important to remember the hope, the smiles and the little things while they were here," she said.
For the Balloon Lift-Off, children and adults were encouraged to write whatever they wanted to say to their lost Soldier.
"Think of a message that you would like to send to whoever brought you here today," Darcie Sims of TAPS told adult family members. "We know these messages get there. As a family, we will send these messages skyward. It's an awesome time for us."
Sims recounted one Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C., when hundreds of balloons were released in memory of lost servicemembers as part of an annual TAPS event. Following the release, Sims happened to meet a passenger of an airplane that was flying in the D.C. airspace above Reagan National Airport at the time of the balloon release.
"We always have to ask permission to do the release because of the airport," Sims said. "The man told me 'I was in a plane earlier today circling Reagan National Airport. I was in a hurry and I wanted to get home. But we had to circle the airport. We were delayed. It made me angry.
'"But, then the pilot explained that the airport was closed for five minutes so these balloons can make their way on this journey. The whole plane just broke out in applause as we saw the balloons rising.' That is the power of your love. Your love stopped a national airport."
The theme of the TAPS event was "We are not alone." TAPS conducts regional seminars across the country with a national event each Memorial Day in Washington, D.C. The Redstone TAPS event invited survivors from a 250-mile radius of the Arsenal. It is hoped by organizers to make TAPS an annual regional event at Redstone.
TAPS has become well-known in the military survivor community as a veterans service organization providing peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources and information, casualty casework assistance and crisis intervention for all those affected by the death of a loved one serving in, or in support of, the armed forces. Giving survivors a sense of community, a sense of togetherness with other survivors, is a main focus of a TAPS Seminar.
"It's awesome to be able to relate to other spouses," said Trina Bishop, widow of Sgt. 1st Class Jason Bishop, who lives in Louisville, Ky.
"This is the fourth TAPS I've attended. It helps you to start learning ways to cope with this sadness and to know there are others who understand what you are going through."
Bishop brought her young son, Matthew, with her to the TAPS event. Michele Buzzard, widow of Sgt. Jason Buzzard, brought her two teenage children, Machala and Tristen. It was the third TAPS event for her children and the second for her.
"When they are having difficulties, they can relate to some of the things they've learned at these events," Buzzard said.
The Buzzard family, which has grown especially close since their Soldier's death in Iraq in June 2006, now lives in Kentucky near Fort Knox.
"Three years ago we picked a spot on the map and started over there," Buzzard said. "We wanted to be close to a military base because we found comfort from the military. My children have learned they are not the only children in the world who has lost someone they love. They're not alone."
Buzzard and her children are active with the SOS at Fort Knox. In fact, Buzzard feels so strongly about the value of the relationships and associations built among survivor family members that she goes out of her way to convince survivors to become active in SOS and events such as TAPS.
"I've been known to chase a few Gold Star families down," she said, referring to survivor families.
While the TAPS event is a step in the healing process for survivors, the event at Redstone was also a cathartic experience for many of the Soldiers who volunteered to mentor the children.
"I lost my mom and dad when I was 5 years old," Sgt. Rodney Beaty of the NCO Academy said. "Today, I heard from these children things like what I went through and I heard the kinds of questions I always had when I was growing up. Questions like: 'Why did they leave' What if they were here now'' It was a comparison for me."
"It's kind of touching. But I'm 31 years old now. I showed the kids today that I was able to cope and I got through it. My siblings and I grew up, and we made it. It was good to be able to reach out to these kids for a whole day and show them that we care."