In October 2004, Betsy Beard's life changed forever when her only son, Spc. Bradley Beard, was killed in action in Iraq. Stricken with grief, Beard began what she called "hemorrhaging on paper," in which she poured out her heartache through journaling.
"At the time, I just didn't see how I was going to live through that," said Beard.
Beard turned to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors [TAPS] to find help in dealing with the loss of Bradley. Little did she know her involvement with TAPS, journaling and a special 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) Caisson horse, known as Klinger, would spark a very meaningful relationship.
"Years ago the children and mentors of the TAPS Good Grief Camp began the tradition of visiting the Caisson stables at Fort Myer," said Beard, who now serves as the editor for the TAPS magazine. "They fell in love with Klinger, one of the largest and gentlest Caisson horses stationed there."
Beard reverted back to what helped her deal with her own loss and put the unique relationship she saw unfolding in front of her eyes into a children's book titled Klinger, A Story of Honor and Hope.
"As I researched and began writing, I was overwhelmed with the enormity of what the Soldiers of the Caisson platoon do for those of us who have lost a loved one in service to America," said Beard. "The Klinger book started as a project to give young survivors, whose parent or sibling has died in the armed forces, a book to bring them comfort and ease their pain with the knowledge that their loved ones were greatly loved and greatly honored."
In the book, the fictional Klinger discovers fulfillment in honoring fallen heroes through his service participating in military funerals in Arlington National Cemetery, Va.
"In the story, Klinger empathizes with the children who come to the cemetery who have lost family members. He represents a creature that cares about the child and how the child is doing," said Ami Neiberger-Miller, TAPS public affairs officer.
"Children who go to Arlington specifically for a loved one's funeral and see Klinger get an understanding of the experience that helps them cope with trauma," said Neiberger-Miller. "Klinger helps our children understand how America honors the service and sacrifice of its military."
Klinger also offers children comfort through a stuffed animal that is also modeled after him.
"When we give the book to our survivors, there is also a stuffed animal that goes along with it. The surviving children who get the stuffed animal often name it Klinger and they will talk to it," said Beard. "Sometimes I think children find it easier to pour out their hearts to an animal than to a human. I believe that is because animals tend to accept us unconditionally. They offer their presence and their comfort to hurting hearts."
Spc. Michael Poarch, infantryman, Caisson platoon, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), said these characteristics aren't far off when it comes to Klinger.
"He is a very friendly horse," said Poarch. "He offers a lot of comfort as any pet would. He's the kind of animal you feel will love you no matter what your faults are. You can approach him in any kind of mood and his friendly demeanor will take your worries away."
Today, Klinger continues to offer support to grieving children through various TAPS events and serves unofficially as the program's mascot. Although he is one of the biggest Caisson horses, Poarch said people shouldn't let his intimidating size fool them.
"He is very compassionate towards children," said Poarch. " He is a gentle giant."