Families of the Fallen Find Healing Through TAPS

Families Find Healing Through TAPSCourtesy the Priestner family.
John Priestner

Teresa and Megan Priestner have made the journey to Arlington National Cemetery every Memorial Day weekend for the last four years. There, mother and daughter quietly honor Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Richard Priestner, the husband and father who died when his Apache helicopter went down in Iraq in 2006.

For Megan, who was then just 10 years old, the pain was overwhelming.

"I didn't accept it. I just sat there and stared at the clock. In my head I said, 'No, he's not dead, no, he can't leave me, and no, I'm too young for him to go,'" she said.

Soldiering OnPlay

John and Teresa grew up together, attending the same kindergarten and graduating from the same high school. After years of friendship, they fell in love when he returned home from training in the Air Force.

They had two daughters together, Breanne and Megan, and were married for nearly 19 years before he died serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Teresa says seeing her daughters struggle was the hardest part of losing her husband.

"If I could have taken the grief from them so they didn't have to suffer it, I would," she said through tears. "Watching them lose their dad and go through what they went through ... it was the worst."

Megan even attempted suicide several times, after each one, waking up in the emergency room.

"My mom and my sister almost lost me three times," she said. "I overdosed and I was cutting myself."

But Megan, now 14, has found a place to heal in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, a national organization that brings surviving families of fallen soldiers together, to process grief and celebrate life.

"This is our safe place to talk about our loved ones and to introduce them to others who never got the chance to know them," TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll said.

Carroll started TAPS in 1994, after her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, was killed in a plane crash. She found herself with little support, and created her own network. Today, TAPS has tens of thousands of members around the country.

"The death of a loved one is like having someone reach in and grab your heart and just pull it right out of your body. There's no physical wound, but it is one of the most devastating experiences you can have," Carroll said.

"Going to a therapist, going to a doctor and having them say, 'Oh, you're grieving appropriately,' or, 'It will just take time,' just doesn't resonate," she said. "Sitting down with another widow, another mom, another brother and saying, 'I don't know if I can make it till tomorrow,' and having them say back to you,'You will because I did and I'm going to take your hand and I'm going to walk you down this road.' That's what TAPS is about."

This weekend, TAPS held its 16th annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar & Good Grief Camp in Arlington, Va. Over four days, more than 1,500 people gather for workshops, mentoring, comfort and care for families who have lost a loved one in military service.

Much of the event's focus is on children, from infants to teenagers. Each wears a button with a photograph of the loved one they lost. Every child is paired with a mentor, most of whom are active duty members of the military.

"I see a lot of love and a lot of pride -- you know, kids who are wearing the buttons with pictures of their dads, their brothers or their moms. And they're just so happy to share that person," Carroll said. "This is someone who just loves them so much and always will, even though they're not physically present any longer. And to be with a mentor, one-on-one, someone who's focused on them, who's a connection to the military is so healing."

The children end the conference by writing a letter to the person who died.

Megan said her message to her father is simple.

"Just tell him that I love him and that I miss him and no matter what, he'll always be in our family," she said.

Megan is also reaching out to other children, who are going through the pain she knows all too well.

"All I want to do is help the kids and make sure they don't do what I did. For their families and them, they don't have to go through the pain and hurt I went through," she said.

Teresa said that makes her proud and thankful.

"I've got my daughter back. And I feel blessed. And she's back here helping others," she said.

Teresa said she cannot imagine how she and her daughters would have made it through this difficult time without TAPS.

"It's like having a guardian angel always around you. That's what TAPS feels like," she said. "It's your big guardian angel wrapping you in wings and you're going to be OK."

Before the day ends, the children tie their letters to red, white and blue helium balloons. Together, they count down, and release them into the sky.

"It's a beautiful thing watching all of us do it," Megan said. "Because all of us are all one, and one big happy family."

And family is what so many of these children need now, more than ever.