Helping the family after a soldier dies
Posted September 13, 2016
Deborah May was seven-and-a-half months pregnant when the two Marines and a chaplain showed up on her doorstep on a Friday in March 2003. Her heart had been pounding all morning. She'd awakened at her home in Twentynine Palms, California, a military town near San Bernadino, to a Yahoo alert about a Charlie Company tank missing in Iraq. She and another military wife were trying to find out if their husbands, assigned to separate tanks, were safe.
They were busy drawing Xs on a Charlie Company roster to figure out how many tanks there were, when they heard someone outside, fumbling with the broken doorbell. Her friend was tall enough to peer through the little window near the top of the door. Deborah saw her hand fly to her mouth and her eyes widen and she knew. The men took off their hats to deliver the news: Deborah’s husband's tank had veered off a bridge over the Euphrates River during a sand storm and was missing.
Three days later, the bodies of the crew, including Staff Sgt. Donald C. May Jr., 31, were found — the day before their daughter Mariah turned 7.
Within six weeks, Deborah May gave birth to their third child.
After Don’s death, she waded through decisions, both immediate and more long-term, from funeral details to the paperwork that accompanies a military death. She tried to listen attentively as people talked about benefits and what comes next, but found it hard to focus.
They had been part of a tight military family, but the strong ties soon began to fray. The other spouses on base offered support and sympathy, but she also saw fear in their faces. The May family was a reminder that danger is real and death could take their soldiers, too. Plus, Don had been her tie to the military as they moved around for his career. Soon, she knew, she’d have to move her family to civilian housing to make room for a military family that still belonged on base.
Deborah May had no idea where to begin back then. But as she tells the story, across the chasm of 13 years, she’s no longer struggling. A lucky encounter changed everything and now she’s alert for other families needing help after the death of someone who’s been in the military. When she finds one, she tells them about the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
TAPS, a non-profit based in Arlington, Virginia, was founded by Bonnie Carroll after her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, died in a plane crash in 1992. It has served more than 60,000 surviving family members, casualty officers and caregivers. Many staffers are survivors who lost their own beloved soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines — like Kelly Griffith, who manages media relations and is the surviving sister of USMC Maj. Samuel Griffith, who died in 2011 during combat in Afghanistan. Or Ashlynne Haycock, whose dad, Sgt. First Class Jeffrey Haycock, died in a training accident in 2002, when she was 10. Before she finished college, her mom had died, too; TAPS helped her figure things out, then asked if she would stay on to develop a program for other families. She became education services coordinator.
“The vast majority of our staff members are survivors or former service members or military spouses,” Haycock said. “There is so much that others can’t do for us that we can do for each other. And it’s much easier for someone like me to talk to a surviving child because I naturally understand what to say and what not to say. I’ve been there. There’s a lot of stuff that can’t be taught.”
TAPS has a formal agreement with the Department of Veteran Affairs to help surviving family members and a separate agreement with most military branches to provide information about TAPS to families of fallen service members so the group can help them. For instance, should someone in the military die while on active-duty, his children and spouse are entitled to education benefits through the federally funded Fry Scholarship, named for Marine Gunnery Sgt. John David Fry, who died in Iraq.
But while the survivors are told in their benefits paperwork that they are entitled to a free education, they may not know how to get the scholarship or sometimes a school doesn’t know how to process it. TAPS knows both. Programs and organizations are often less familiar with the needs of surviving family members, who comprise a much smaller group than the approximately 21 million veterans with whom they typically work. So TAPS is a knowledgeable and respected go-between to smooth out the wrinkles.
The group offers seminars and other outreach for bereaved families around the country, with Survivor Seminars for adults and Good Grief Camps for kids. That’s how the Mays and TAPS met. Families return again and again to the camps and seminars and, over time, “it’s like a reunion with people you’re bonding with and surviving with,” Deborah May said. “Every year you go back, you’re a little stronger. There comes a place in your grieving you start to feel bad for other people and recognize they are in the same place you were. You become a sort of mentor.”
TAPS also runs a 24/7 emotional support help line. It can connect people to counseling or simply to another surviving family that lives nearby, Haycock said.
It also provides online chats on different topics that any interested TAPS family can join. Last year a Utah high school softball player wore Don’s name on the back of her jersey all season, facilitated by TAPS. TAPS sometimes takes surviving family members to sporting events; it took Deborah’s parents to a Cubs game in Chicago, for example. Don May loved the Cubs.
The acronym TAPS works on many levels, not least as the mournful tune for the departed. It also works as a flow of services that shower families. The help is broad, the knowledge of policy deep. Services are free.
Baby Will, not yet born when his dad died, is in middle school in Salt Lake, where the Mays live now. Jack’s in high school and Mariah is a junior at the community college, studying epidemiology.
Mariah alone of the three children remembers their dad, but they talk about him and look at pictures so he’s real to the boys, too. She guards the memories she has, she said, lest they fade.
TAPS camp helped her and she has returned as a mentor to help others whose losses are more recent. She has made friends around the country through the program.
Not long ago, Deborah pondered who would teach her Jack, now 15, to shave. “It broke my heart that my husband was not here for this almost sacred rite of passage,” she said.
It was a TAPS mentor, a man named Tim, who gathered a handful of boys in front of a big mirror at a Good Grief camp and walked them tenderly through the process.
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