FORT CARSON, Colo. -- More than 100 survivors of servicemembers who died by suicide visited Fort Carson Oct. 23 for an evening gathering at the Fallen Heroes Family Center.
Hundreds of people traveled to Colorado Springs last week for the 3rd Annual National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp, offered by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. They shared hardships, searched for answers and connected with others for three days at Cheyenne Mountain Resort.
TAPS is a 24/7 resource for anyone suffering from the loss of a military loved one, regardless of relationship to the deceased or the circumstances of the death. During the final day of this year's annual seminar, a shuttle bus transported attendees to Fort Carson.
When Jen Haugen of Everett, Wash., stepped inside the Fallen Heroes Family Center, she quickly noticed a wall covered with 8-by-10 inch portraits. She hoped they were images of volunteers. While touring the single-story building, she found many more. The photographs covered the walls in the entry area and adjacent hallways.
"Your heart sinks," said Haugen, explaining the moment she realized each portrait symbolized the loss of a servicemember -- from suicide to combat, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
Most portraits represent a death after 9/11, said Angela Gunn, Survivor Outreach Services program manager.
"You feel sorry for all their Families, and then you thank them for their service," she said, while describing the center as "a museum that's honoring everyone who's fallen. You get to look each of them in the eye and say 'thank you,' and 'I'm sorry.'"
Haugen had a button pinned to her shirt with a photograph of her boyfriend, Sgt. August Pitcher, who died by suicide in January -- "it's been nine months, 17 days," she said.
Twenty-one portraits hung under the heading "Remember the Love, Celebrate the Life, Share the Journey," during the opening of the Fallen Heroes Family Center in October 2010. Today, there are more than 120 images, each provided by a fallen hero's loved one.
Survivor Outreach Services coordinators arrange group counseling and one-on-one assistance, as well as a place to quietly relax in a homelike atmosphere. The two massaging recliner chairs in the relaxation room vibrated throughout the night, helping numerous suicide survivors sideline their worries.
"It's nice people can go find resources and support after a loss," said Julie Jerden of Houston, whose brother, Spc. Frank Stokes, died by suicide in March 2002. "This is one building no family wants to visit, but it's one of the most important to have."
Survivors must stay in contact with other people during the months following their loved one's suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. AFSP's Survivor Research Initiative is studying the treatment of complicated grief, a chronic condition that affects more than 200,000 survivors each year.
"You're not alone," said Col. Robert F. McLaughlin, garrison commander, speaking to the more than 200 adults and approximately 80 children attending the TAPS seminar banquet on the second day. He discussed the loss of his lifelong friend, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, who died by suicide in 2005.
"Remember the love, celebrate the life and share the journey -- what incredible words," said McLaughlin. "It's healing to me to talk about my friend who certainly was a hero to me. And my hope for all of you is that you can do the same, as you deal with your individual grief.
"We aim to deliver on a promise at Fort Carson," said McLaughlin. "In our Soldier's creed it says never leave a fallen comrade and their Family, and that's true. We will never do it."
McLaughlin announced the construction of a new resiliency campus at Fort Carson "to bring more strength, mind and body, to Soldiers." The project includes a fitness complex, behavioral health facility and child development center. Embedded in the plan is suicide prevention, he said.
"They have made it personal to take care of others -- they've done so much on their own time," said Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and training, Army Forces Command, while thanking McLaughlin and Col. Jimmie O. Keenan, commander, Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson.
"Carol and I have lost both of our sons," said Graham. "Just seven months before our oldest son Jeff was killed in Iraq by an (improvised explosive device), we lost Kevin, our youngest son, to suicide, fighting a different battle. To lose both of our sons was truly beyond all comprehension.
"In suffering, we either find ourselves or we destroy ourselves," he said, while quoting Oswald Chambers, an early 20th century minister and teacher. "You always know the person who has been through the fires of sorrow and found himself because you are certain you can go to him in your time of sorrow."