News: TAPS honors soldiers for mentoring
Story by Dustin Senger
FORT CARSON, Colo. — Fifty soldiers were honored in the Fallen Heroes Family Center Jan. 13 for taking an extra, extraordinary step as soldiers.
The soldiers volunteered in October to mentor children during the 3rd Annual National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp, offered by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors at Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs. Each child had lost a loved one, a service member, to suicide.
While hundreds of people from across the nation spent three days sharing hardships, searching for answers and making connections, the soldiers offered children of all ages their support.
“It was a way to give back a little piece of what they were missing … the military environment, military culture,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Lawson, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. He mentored a 13-year-old boy who lost his father.
Lawson said the seminar and camp presented an opportunity to let children know that people outside their families care about their hardships, too. The soldier firmly stated that “getting involved more in your community makes it a better place.”
To show their gratitude, TAPS members residing in Colorado Springs served a homemade Mexican-style meal in the Fallen Heroes Family Center. Ahead of filling tacos and scooping salsa over tortilla chips, the soldiers were formally recognized for their altruistic and encouraging efforts last fall.
Col. Robert F. McLaughlin, garrison commander, explained his appreciation for the large amount of soldiers who volunteered as mentors. At the seminar, McLaughlin discussed the loss of a lifelong friend to suicide.
“It’s ultimately soldiers helping soldiers,” he said, “and in this case, soldiers helping the families of the fallen.
“People who’ve been doing this for years were just blown away,” said McLaughlin, about survivor outreach services coordinators. “The comments that I got for weeks afterwards, from TAPS leadership, were phenomenal. They could not believe how much of a connection you made.”
Pat Randle, Army Community Service director at Fort Carson, read a message from Kim Ruocco, TAPS director of suicide education and outreach tragedy assistance. Ruocco had sent the letter from Boston to the soldiers.
“You are here today because you have sacrificed your precious free time to make a difference in the life of a child,” said Randle, reading Ruocco’s letter. “We realize that you give an enormous sacrifice every day as American soldiers, but to take that extra step is truly extraordinary.
“The children arrived in Colorado from all over the country. They were children who had experienced the unthinkable; someone they loved had died by suicide. For most, it was their father. They arrived holding tight to their surviving parent, looking fragile and unsure.
“The first thing I noticed was the laughter. I caught glimpses of soldiers with children on their shoulders, the child giggling and the soldier smiling. I saw a mentor chasing a child and the child screaming with excitement. I saw a mentor with a child on his lap looking at pictures of her dad.
“I realized how great an impact these soldiers had on our children. It was obvious that this group of men and women had a love of life and a compassion for others that was truly inspirational.
“The parents were tearful as they realized what this mentor relationship meant to their child. Their child had reconnected to their military family that they thought they lost. They had found a hero that wanted to listen and who really cares, somebody just for them.”
Sgt. Billy Cremeans, 32nd Transportation Company, 68th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 43rd Sustainment Brigade, admitted that everyone was nervous at first, however strong connections quickly surfaced.
Cremeans said the relationship he nurtured with a 6-year-old boy remains strong today. He was planning on cheering for the child at a wrestling tournament the following day. With three children of his own, the soldier and father felt obligated to support the TAPS seminar and camp.
“I felt like I needed to give something back,” said Cremeans. “I would want somebody to do the same thing for my kids if something happened to me.”