Legacy Mentors Play Key Role In TAPS Good Grief Camps

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

Every Memorial Day weekend, we honor the service members who gave their lives for our country. But for every fallen hero, there’s a family who got left behind – parents, brothers, sisters, wives and children.

To remind them that they’re not alone in their grief, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors holds a National Military Survivor Seminar every Memorial Day weekend, along with a Good Grief Camp for the children of our fallen warriors.

Surviving children and their mentors cheer during the 21st annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp in Arlington, Va., May 22, 2015. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Hinton

For nearly a quarter of a century, families have been attending these events to celebrate the lives of their loved ones and to remember that a grateful nation never forgets. It’s also a reminder that those families are part of the story by letting them connect with other survivors and meet with experts on grief and loss.

For the kids, the Good Grief Camp is a great opportunity to learn to grieve and heal with other kids like them. Each child is paired with an active-duty or veteran military mentor who can remind that while their immediate connection to the military might be gone, they will ALWAYS be a part of the family.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Brown (left) and Sgt. Daniel Parker spend the day with their mentee, Daniel Sawyer, at a TAPS Good Grief Camp barbecue at Fort Hood, Texas, July 20, 2013. Photo by Army Capt. Angel Jackson

Good Grief Camp Legacy Mentor Gillian Cabrera

The camp also has legacy mentors to help the kids. These mentors have been in the campers’ position before, having attended themselves in the past as a military survivor.

Gillian Cabrera is one of those legacy mentors. She lost her father, Army Lt. Col. David Cabrera, in a suicide bombing incident in Afghanistan in October 2011. She said TAPS wasn’t something she initially wanted to get involved with, but her stepmother and younger brothers had gone and loved it, and they kept asking her to go.

“At first I was in denial and didn’t want to attend, but after hearing all my brothers talk about it, it sounded like it would be beneficial for me,” she said. So she agreed. “Now, I can’t imagine life without it.”

She said TAPS helped her immensely. Now, she’s looking forward to returning the favor.

“I want to help the kids in their journey of grief. I want to connect with the kids who have also lost someone important to them and be that person they can connect to and reach out to, both at TAPS events and any other time they need someone to talk to,” Cabrera said.

She said creating new relationships and making positive connections with someone is a really great feeling. Having been a mentor at a regional TAPS event earlier this year, she said she really does see a difference in the kids from the start of the camp to the end.

“Once they get comfortable with the mentors, they open up more and are more likely to share their stories and feelings,” she said. “The last day of camp was completely different from the first in the best possible way.”

Since she was skeptical of the program at first, she understands the kids’ feelings about it and their loss.

“I know it feels a little weird to open up to so many strangers, but I also understand that these people won’t be strangers by the end of the day, so it helps for legacy mentors to relate to them,” Cabrera said.

Family members and TAPS volunteers release balloons to honor fallen Marines at a Good Grief Camp in Hawaii, Feb. 28, 2016. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Wesley Timm

The TAPS Good Grief Camp has grown in success, and Cabrera said she hopes it continues to do so – and for the public to learn more about it.

“I think it’s important to make TAPS more well-known to the general public so people will understand and be more aware of what qualifies families to go to TAPS,” she said. “The program is very beneficial to all the kids (and parents) involved, and spreading awareness could bring more families that need it into the TAPS family.”

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