The Ultimate Sacrifice

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed thousands of American lives, leaving behind devastated families to cope with their grief and loss.

The organization TAPS — which stands for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors has helped tens of thousands of families cope with military deaths over the past 20 years. TAPS holds “Good Grief Camps” around the country to help young people understand they are not alone in their sadness and to teach coping skills so they can move on.

At one of these TAPS camps in a hotel in downtown Philadelphia, a room full of 5- to 7-year-olds sits coloring. This is a scene that could take place anywhere — that is, until you look at the pictures they’re drawing.

“This is my dad watching TV and this is a graveyard,” says Grayson Garber, 6, from New York. “His name was Richard, he was in the Navy. He got hit by a bomb and also he died because a big missile hit him.”

Richard Garber was 26 when he died in 2011.

One of the ways children at the TAPS camp learn to cope with death is identifying and talking about their feelings. One game they play is Feelings Bingo, using emotions instead of numbers. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

Catherine Clark is 5. She sits next to Grayson, furiously coloring with blue around a winged figure.

“My dad’s an angel and he’s about to swim in Hawaii,” Catherine says. “He likes to tickle people… I would tickle him back.”

Kevin Clark was serving in the Army when he died in Afghanistan in 2012.

Dylan Bayless is 8. He’s written his name on a bright yellow star. And right next to it is the name David.

“Dear David. I miss you so much. I want you to come back please,” Dylan says, speaking about his stepfather. “I didn’t want him to die, I told him don’t go out there because you’re going to die but he didn’t listen.”

David Bayless died in combat in Afghanistan in 2009.

A safe space for kids to confront emotions

Vanessa Daley works with TAPS. She says even though these children are young — some were babies when their parent died — they carry around very deep emotions.

“They go to their friend’s house and they see mom and dad and the family things and that’s really tough for them. Even when we have kids that are remembering things, ‘I remember when I went to Disneyland when I was five’, I have lots and lots of kids that get really, really upset because that’s when they start to realize they never got that time with their parents,” Daley says.

Children here do an activity during which they write a letter to whomever they’re angry with.

“If it was in Iraq or Afghanistan, they write the letter to the bad guy that shot them or threw a bomb at them,” Daley says. “I’ve done it with kids as young as 7 years old and they’re just really angry, ‘Why did you have to do that? Why did you have to throw it at my dad?’”

First-time volunteer Dennis Baker, 29, helps with spellings as Montana Bayless writes down the names of people who she loves on strips of paper. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

All the children at the camp wear a photo button of their loved one who died. And Daley says the most valuable part of the camp is knowing they aren’t alone.

“One of the parents said — this was her daughter’s first time — and she said, ‘Mom, everybody in my room, all of them, have a button on like me, their dad died too,’” Daley says.

For teens, this TAPS camp can be calming, as they deal with loss during an already difficult age.

Madison Cheever, 14, says this is the only place she can talk about her dad Robert as much as she wants.

“You don’t have to worry about, ‘Oh, what if someone makes fun of me,’ because they know how hard it is,” she says.

Sgt. 1st Class Robert Cheever did three tours of duty in Afghanistan. He was 37 when he had a stroke. When the family was told he wouldn’t recover, they moved from Fort Drum in New York, to Minnesota, where Rob Cheever’s family lived. Madison’s mother Jill Bailey, says her children’s sorrow was compounded by leaving the only home they had known.

“Even though we had moved back to the Midwest to our family, they’re all civilians. It was culture shock, total culture shock. The military, they’re a family and you all come together, you have your Army brothers, Army sisters, you’re family,” she says.

Sesame Workshop's Military Family Outreach

Robert Cheever died a month later. Cheever says she can’t relate to anyone in school.

“They’ll say, ‘Yeah, I lost a grandparent,’” she says. “But that wasn’t someone who would probably walk you down the aisle one day.”

When Madison talks about the fun times with her father, her face lights up.

“He took everything to the max, like he broke his leg two times skydiving and whenever he broke his leg he would just laugh it off and say, ‘I’m going skydiving next week!’”

Cheever says she’s filled two or three journals with letters she’s written to her dad because she’s sure he reads them.

“And I like doing it because then I can still remember him and I’m not… he’s not slowly fading away and just being a memory,” she says.

She says that when they visit his grave, she sits down and talks to him.

“Until my mom finally says we need to go,” Cheever says. “She says I’m definitely his child who’s always talking and never stops.”

Learning to lean on friends and family as support
  • Every child attending a TAPS camp wears a badge with their name and a photo button of her family member who has died. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Catherine Clark, 5, plays with a TAPS mentor during a break. The camp specifically recruits military service members because the children can relate to them. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Savannah Wriglesworth, 5, carries her “daddy doll” around everywhere for comfort. It’s a stuffed doll with a photograph of her father wearing his uniform, printed on it. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • Abby Ries, 9, and Maggie Borek, 7, are related. They attend the camp in honor of their cousin Travis Manion who was fatally wounded by a sniper in Iraq in 2007. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • One of the ways children at the TAPS camp learn to cope with death is identifying and talking about their feelings. One game they play is Feelings Bingo, using emotions instead of numbers. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • Tim Vernon, left, is a first-time volunteer at TAPS and Vanessa Daley, Texas, has worked with TAPS as a facilitator for nine years. Grayson Garber, 6, from New York, participates in an activity called Chain of Support. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • Children write down the names of people they can share their feelings with, on strips of paper. TAPS mentor Tim Vernon looks on as Savannah Wriglesworth, 5, and Leia Baum, 7, write down names including “grandmother” “mom” and “dad.” (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • TAPS mentors like Tim Vernon are trained in grief counseling and support. TAPS holds several regional camps and one national camp every year. The camps teach children who have lost a military loved one “coping skills, that they are part of an American legacy of service and sacrifice and that they are not alone.” (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • Savannah Wriglesworth, 5, shows off her chain with names of people who she loves and she can talk to about her father’s death.

  • Counselor Vanessa Daley and Grayson Garber, 6, make a stress ball out of Play Doh and balloons. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • Vanessa Daley has been a camp counselor at TAPS for nine years. Her father died in Iraq in 2003. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • At the end of the camp all the survivors hold hands as they say goodbye. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • Aimee Wriglesworth’s husband was in the military for 13 years. He died of cancer in 2013. She says part of what made it so difficult was that she not only her husband died, she was no longer part of the military culture and community. “When a military loved one dies, your life stops. It just stops. You are no longer active-duty military, you are no longer looking forward to promotions and celebrations, you’re now those people. It feels like a whole other loss, not only did I lose my husband but I lost my lifestyle." (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

  • On what would have been their eighth wedding anniversary, Aimee Wriglesworth honored her late husband by getting his identification or “dog tags” tattooed on her arm. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

Back in the children’s group, Vanessa Daley with TAPS has started another activity to help children feel better when they are sad. She passes around little neon strips of paper to a table of 5- to 7-year-olds.

“We’re doing the chain of support, so they’re talking about the different people in their lives they feel comfortable talking to,” Daley says.

Children write down the names of their confidantes.

“I have my uncle, my sister, my dog,” says one.

Children write the names of people they love on strips of paper and link them together to make a chain of support. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

“Jesus, God, my stuffed animal and I’m also going to write my daddy up in heaven,” says another.

Then they glue the strips together to make a circle and interlock them to form a chain.

“The longer your chain is, the stronger we will be,” Daley says.

She listens as children share what they’ve learned at camp:

“Even if someone died in your family, you can still have fun.”

“You can share your feelings that you never shared with people.”

“I learned you are really, really brave because you told us about our loved ones even though sometimes it’s hard to talk about it,” Daley says.

And she would know. Daley lost her father 11 years ago when he was deployed in Iraq.

“I’m a mom now, and so knowing that I’m not going to have my dad, my children are not going to have a grandparent. It never goes away, it changes,” Daley says through tears.

She says she wants these children at TAPS to know there are two paths they can take.

“You can take that grief and you can hold it inside and it can be very negative,” she says. “I just want the kids to see that there’s another road and that’s the road that their parents would want them to take.”

  • Catherine Clark, 5, says her father Kevin Clark is an angel. He was serving in the Army when he died in Afghanistan in 2012. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Catherine Clark draws a picture of her father as an angel, playing in the waters of Hawaii. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Children at TAPS draw pictures of where they think their parents who died in the war are now. Many draw pictures of what they think heaven looks like. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Grayson Garber, 6, says his father is in a graveyard watching television.Richard Garber served in the Navy. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Ariela Kane, 7, says she thinks her brother Michael is with his friends in heaven and looking down and protecting her and her friends on earth. She says she wants everyone to have a smiling face. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Dylan Bayless, 8, has written a message on a star to his stepfather David, who died in combat in Afghanistan in 2009. It reads “Dear David. I miss you so much. I want you to come back [please]." (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Abby Ries 9, attends the TAPS camp in honor of her cousin Travis Manion who was fatally wounded by a sniper in Iraq in 2007. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Maggie Borek, 7, attends the camp in honor of her cousin Travis Manion who died in Iraq. She believe Travis and her deceased grandmother live in 'God's Castle' in heaven. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Tombstones show up often in these children's drawings when they remember their loved ones who died in the war. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Grayson Garber, 6, says his father is watching television under a tombstone. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

  • Angelina Kane, 12, says she misses her older brother Michael a lot. He was serving in the Marines when he died and she buried her favorite bracelet with him in his grave. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

Suicide leaves behind scars for families

Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, approximately 3,000 military service members have killed themselves. That doesn’t include veterans, National Guard and reserve troops not on active duty. The Department of Defense now considers suicide among the most important issues facing the military.

For children, suicide is extremely difficult to understand because they want their loved one to be a hero, as in “how many people did my dad save?” or “did he jump on a bomb to save his buddies?” Many blame themselves and feel responsible.

And sometimes, the parent’s death isn’t fully recognized by the military or the family may be too embarrassed to have a public obituary that requires the cause of death.

Connor shows off a pouch that his father gave him with their last name on it. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

In Joppa, Maryland, 80 miles away from the TAPS camp, 7-year-old Connor Deal is sitting in his basement. He’s balancing a large photo album on his lap. His mother Susan says he does this several times a month.

“This is a picture of me,” Connor says. “We have a wagon and my dad used to pull me around in it and I liked that a lot.”

Michael Deal is Connor’s father, who served in a special tactics unit in the Air Force. Susan says they were both 23 when they met.

“He would say we met at a bar, but I say we met at a Christmas party because it was at a Christmas party at a bar. But, we met that night and the rest was history!” Susan says.

He was a dashing and happy airman who jumped out of planes. She was a gorgeous and kind therapist in private practice. They fell in love instantly.

During their nine years as a couple and eight years married, they were apart a lot because of Michael’s job: deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Kuwait and constant trainings. In 2007, Michael got out of the military and transitioned into civilian life. But it didn’t go the way he hoped.

“He was only offered lower paying positions and he had all this special tactics training but he didn’t have a college degree. He thought his skills would be valued more than reality,” Susan says.

Michael sorely missed the brotherhood of military life and the excitement of jumping out of airplanes. At around the same time, he was diagnosed with ADHD and depression. His doctor prescribed a variety of medications, including one he should not have been taking because of his family history of bipolar disorder.

“And, he started changing then, actually,” Susan says. “He really felt, he thought people were kind of out to get him. He was very suspicious about everything, made accusations of me that weren’t true… How do you tell someone who’s paranoid that they’re paranoid? That doesn’t usually work out, you know?”

One weekend Susan and their children went to the beach. Michael stayed behind because of work and insisted he was fine; that they go and have fun.

“And I got a call at 4:20 in the morning, saying that he was dead,” Susan says.

Michael Deal was 33 years old.

Connor looks at photos of his father, Michael Deal, who committed suicide at age 33. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

Connor says it’s hard sometimes keeping his dad’s death a secret. He doesn’t tell his younger brother or his friends at school, because he says it was too violent.

“Well he died because… like his brain got messed up and… he got mad a lot and soon… how he died, he accidentally shot himself,” Connor says.

At this, his mother Susan shakes her head, but Connor continues talking. He says when he thinks about his dad, sometimes he’s happy, sometimes he’s sad and sometimes he’s angry.

“Like that he’s not here and I’m angry because I can’t play with him,” Connor says. “I miss playing sports with him.”

Susan talks about the emotions she felt initially at her husband Michael’s suicide.

“I wonder why didn’t you turn around the back of your truck and look at your car seats and know that you have something to live for,” she says.

Susan says dealing with questions from Connor was the most difficult, and there were many questions.

“’But how did he die?’ And, you know, I gritted my teeth and basically said he took his own life. “But how?’ And I said, ‘With a gun.’ And he looked at me and he goes, ‘He shot himself? Why?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And I kind of explained that he had something wrong with his brain,” Susan says.

“The fact that he said to you that it was accidental; because the fact he said to you it was accidental, he knows that it’s not; Michael was an excellent marksman. He knew how to handle a weapon. There was nothing accidental about it,” she says.

Since Michael died, Connor has regressed a little and has begun sucking his thumb again. He’s also become more anxious.

“And I think some of his jitters are more ‘I don’t know what’s coming.’ Because we went to the beach and in their little minds everything was fine and we come home and Daddy’s gone. That doesn’t make any sense, to anybody,” she says.

Remembering those we lost

At his home, Connor opens a closet door that opens into a smaller door that he then crawls through into a tiny little room his father built for him.

“This is my fort that he made, it’s very small,” Connor says.

You flip a switch and little stars come on. There are maps from Afghanistan pinned on the walls and a pint-sized cabinet where Connor keeps his prized possessions.

Susan and Connor Deal cuddle on the porch of their home in Joppa, Maryland. (Photo by Andrew Katz-Moses)

“My dad he gave me some of his stuff that he used to use for work. He gave me this little pouch, and I put things in here. He wrote ‘Deal’ on it,” Connor says.

Connor’s eyes sparkle with pride as he points out his father’s helmet and books and citations. When asked to explain who his father was as a person, he talks about the good times.

“He’s very nice and no matter what, he had time to play with me. He would tell jokes to me and he would sometimes make funny faces,” Connor says.

“He had a whole 32 and a half really good years. And I don’t want him to be remembered for the last moment in his life,” Susan says.

As Susan Deal cuddles Connor on the front porch of her house, she tries not to think of the many memories Michael won’t be there to make with their sons. She just got engaged and is trying to make way for future memories with her fiancé. It’s a difficult balance.

“When we’re just driving along and it’s a perfectly good day and you get asked, ‘Why isn’t Daddy still here?’ it breaks your heart and it does get you choked up,” Susan says. “But, some days, it’s a beautiful day out and you just get to smile and live and be good. So it just depends on the day. Today is a good day.”