ARLINGTON,Va.- Brooke Nyren,15,from Reston,Va.,lost her father,Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Nyren,in Iraq when she was only 8 years old. A civilian vehicle that was being driven by a 16-year-old Iraqi boy struck his vehicle and he died on contact.
Though Brooke’s parents were divorced,Courtney Nyren,Brooke’s mother,an accountant,said they received the knock on the door just like anyone else. The experience changed the way Brooke acted and scared her mother.
“She was so lost. I didn’t know what to do,” Nyren,36,said.
Nyren and her daughter are just two of the estimated 64,350 people who are affected by the loss of loved ones in Afghanistan and Iraq alone. For most,gathering around others who have grieved over similar experiences helps bring inner piece.
Hundreds of children,siblings,widows and parents who lost a loved one in the military,flew from around the country Thursday to attend the 18th annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp here.
TAPS stands for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors,and it is a national organization that provides peer-based support and other resources to help survivors cope.
Bonnie Carroll,the president and founder of TAPS,lost her husband in 1992. Army Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll died in a military plane crash in Alaska. Carroll said his death inspired her to start a program for the thousands of Americans who have to deal with these kinds of deaths.
“A death in the military is unlike any other type of loss in our society,” Carroll said. “ We have this Memorial Day to honor those who have served and sacrificed. For military families,TAPS is a special community they will always be a part of.”
Shortly after arriving,survivors,dressed head to toe in red,white and blue,met with their peers to share their stories and grieving methods.
Ruth and James Wiley from North Bend,Ore.,lost their son in Afghanistan in 2008. Lt. Col. James Wiley Jr. was 46 when he died from injuries not related to combat. This is their first year at the seminar. They said they’ve heard only good news and have high expectations.
“We hope to find inner peace,” Ruth Wiley said. “Not accepting his death,but being able to live with it and live a normal life. Being around other people who have shared the same experience has been very helpful because each person has their own story and that thing they can share to make it easier.”
The four-day conference includes workshops,seminars and different type of grievance therapies. Children were assigned to individual mentors and attended Good Grief Camp,sessions to help children learn ways to express their feelings.
Former Cpl. Hagan Hunter,24,a mentor for the camp said the main goal is to show children it is OK to feel. Hunter,who toured the Middle East,left the Marine Corps last year and is now a financial adviser for an agriculture installation company.
“Every year we get a lot of new kids. Some have lost a loved one as recently as a week before the camp,” Hunter said. “We have circle,or grief time. We’ll discuss what the children know about their loved one,what they feel about it and how it’s affected their life.”
This year,the children will write letters to their lost loved ones,attach them to balloons and watch as they float away.
Brooke Nyren said the individual mentoring program for children has helped her mature,and she now gives advice to the new children entering the camp.
“When I met my mentor,Nick,we instantly clicked and bonded,” Brooke said. “He taught me that it’s OK to cry and that I’m still who I am before my dad passed away and that it’s OK to let out my emotion.”
Other activities include hot hula hooping,yoga,and grief art and scrapbooking classes. Survivors will also get a tour of the Pentagon and a visit to Section 60 of the Arlington Cemetery,where Iraq and Afghanistan casualties are buried.
Jessica Oatman,from Williamsburg,Va.,lost her brother,Paul,in Afghanistan in 2009. This year,she came with her mom,siblings and her 7-year-old son,Montana,and said she couldn’t imagine spending her Memorial Day anywhere else.
“Before,Memorial Day used to be about parties and barbeques,but it’s not that anymore,” Oatman said. “Now,it’s more his weekend. We come here to celebrate his life and everybody’s life who changed our country.”
Reach reporter Rebecca Burton at [email protected] or 202-326-9866. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.