By Rhonda Apple, Pentagram Staff Writer
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va.- American kids from Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and Israeli youth from the Israel Defense Force Widows & Orphans Organization along with adult volunteers and staff from both organizations, visited Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and Arlington National Cemetery Aug. 12.
It was the first time both groups partnered for an international event and one of more than 20 events TAPS hosts annually as part of their Good Grief Camp program for kids who have lost parents who served in the military. It was also the first visit to the U.S. for the Israeli kids, who are also children of fallen service members.
Fifty-nine kids (44 from Israel and 15 from Virginia and North Carolina, ages 12-18) and about 30 adult volunteers and staff from both organizations met with members of The Old Guard on the field near Cody Child Development Center on the Fort Myer portion of the joint base. Staff Sgt. John Ford and Spc. Cheyenne Rakestraw, of the Caisson Platoon, along with Caisson horse Klinger, visited with the group and posed for photos.
"It’s awesome; I get to hang out with people who actually know what I am feeling. The mentors are nice to us and do everything they can to help us," said James Stoddard III, 12, from Crofton, Md. James lost his dad, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class James Stoddard Jr., who died in a vehicle rollover while deployed in Afghanistan in October 2005.
The visitors were treated to a performance by the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team. Afterward, drill team members spoke with the spirited youth, answered many questions, posed for photos and autographed the group’s official photo for the kids.
"This is great … I’ve always wanted to visit the United States," said Shira Alalay, 11, from Lapid, Israel.
Following a picnic lunch, the group made their way to Arlington National Cemetery to observe the changing of the tomb guard and participate in a wreath laying ceremony.
The wreath, made by the kids from both organizations, included their hand prints, to memorialize the parents who died while serving their respective country.
Zacharian Schade, 15, of Spring Lake, N.C., and volunteer Aaron Burciaga, who served as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, represented TAPS at the wreath-laying. They were joined by IDFWO representatives Asaf Amitai, 14, and Army 1st Sgt. Shane Tordjman, from Israel.
"It was an honor to participate in the ceremony … very personal," said Tordjman, who was four years old when his father died while serving on active duty in Israel. He said losing his father as well as serving in the Army was an influence on working with the kids in IDFWO. "They’re like my little brothers and sisters," he said.
"Many of our surviving families miss military culture and the lifestyle that comes with being an active duty military family. After their loved one dies, they often feel disconnected. They are grieving the loss of not only a service member, but also a way of life," said Ami Neiberger-Miller, TAPS public affairs officer and surviving sister of U.S. Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, who was killed in Iraq in 2007.
"Being able to go onto a military base helps children better understand the military that their loved one served in, and it also helps them reconnect to the military community. TAPS is very appreciative to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall for its support in conducting programs assisting families of fallen military service members," she said.
Neiberger-Miller said being defined as a child of a fallen service member at school and around the neighborhoods can be difficult for children and teenagers. "At TAPS, we give grieving military children and teens a safe place to connect with others who understand what they are feeling and coping with," she added.
As part of the multi-cultural exchange, the group also visited the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., and met Israel’s ambassador. They went on a night tour of Washington’s war memorials to learn how the U.S. honors all who serve and die in the armed forces. Collages were made about their loved ones and shared with each other. The kids learned about different cultural approaches to grieving a military loss and they forged friendships through peer and support connections.
"I love volunteering for TAPS because not only does it give me a chance to help someone that has been through a similar situation, but also my mentee helps me with my grieving process," said U.S. Army Spc. Anthony Jacob, of the 4/3 Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) Honor Guard Company, Presidential Casket Platoon and TAPS Good Grief Camp mentor.
"I grew up without my father, and I am also a father. I want to help provide that [support] to someone who has [also] lost their father in service to our country," he said.
For more information about TAPS and their Good Grief Camps mentor program, go to www.taps.org.