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Grief camp returns to Alaska

Program for those who lost loved ones to war, back after 13 years

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2007

FORT RICHARDSON - Raynee Redington's brown lunch bag has the words "Daddy Angel" pasted on it.

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"My daddy's killed in Iraq," she said of the Fort Richardson soldier killed by indirect fire in Iraq last April. "It makes me sad."

After two months, it's hard to tell she's suffered such a major loss. Raynee boasts she's 5 years old and is laughing with eight other children as she cuts words out from magazines to paste on her bag.

But buried deep inside the bag are the words - representing her feelings about the loss of her adored father - she keeps hidden from the world.

Across the room, another girl says, "Sometimes I feel angry."

It's part of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which is back in Anchorage this week after a 13-year hiatus.

The national program goes around to military bases throughout the year - it is visiting 12 this year - and holds a central conference in Washington, D.C. once a year. It spreads a simple message: You are not alone.

TAPS provides counseling services and networking opportunities for people who have lost a loved one at war. It gets more than 30 calls a day from families needing help.

Kim Leary is helping the children put their bags together. The 26-year-old volunteer will later open the bags and talk about the words inside them. Though she's now a volunteer, she first attended the program in 1996 after her father, Lt. Col. Richard Leary, was killed in an Airborne Warning and Control System plane crash on Elmendorf Air Force Base.

"It's a great experience, and it's important to give back," she said. "This is the only time these kids get to feel normal."

The program, based out of Washington, D.C., began in Alaska in 1992 after founder Bonnie Carroll's husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, was killed in a plane crash near Juneau. Carroll said she wanted to create a network to help others cope with death.

"Today is an opportunity for all of us to find comfort and hope," she said. "TAPS gives families the tools to cope with the loss."

It's become more needed than ever in recent years. Fort Richardson has so far had 69 soldiers killed in the Middle East, a small fraction of the 3,501 U.S. troops killed since the war began, according to a count by The Associated Press.

"I've seen how it's evolved and progressed," said Capt. Edward Arntson of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry. "Everybody knows that people get killed over there, but you never really hear what kind of care the family receives after the fact."

Arntson got shot in the right arm near Fallujah, Iraq, in March. After five months at war, he's back in Alaska, Purple Heart in hand, and has since been helping families of people in his unit get through the deployment.

Part of the job is helping them cope with their losses. He said TAPS provides a great resource for the families for a few days, but the unit is there for them all the time.

It also has to cope with the dirty work. This May he had to tell a woman her husband had been killed.

"The notification was the hardest thing I've had to do in the Army," he said.

Nice though he may be, military families don't want to hear from someone like him while their loved one is at war.

But it happened to 25-year-old Kyle Harper anyway. She was planning her wedding from her parents' home in Maine when she heard from her fiancé's family on April 28 that he had been killed. She still isn't exactly sure what happened to Michael Hullender.

He was an Army medic stationed at Fort Richardson. Depending on whom you ask, he either died after a roadside bomb went off while he was on his way to help a patrol or after he already assisted the injured soldiers. She's hoping for the latter.

Either way, she didn't really want to come to TAPS in the first place.

"This is supposed to be someone else," she said.

The program is open to anyone who seeks out its services, officials said, even those who aren't officially family yet.

Now, she's glad it does. She said it's been good to meet other people who face similar problems that she can talk to, like Amanda Dodson.

Dodson, 23, expected her fiance to return this May. Instead she got a call in January from Cpl. Jason Corbett's mother.

"This can't be happening," she thought. "Why my soldier? We had plans and dreams."

He was killed Jan. 15 by small-arms fire in Karmah, Iraq. She still has unsent letters she'd written to him.

The program has helped her get in touch with others who have been forced to deal with a similar loss, and it has allowed her to focus on healing, she said, difficult though it's been.

"It's such a big wound," she said. "Where do I go from here?"



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