Group comforts families of troops killed in Iraq
Hit by grief, one couple became peer-mentors to help others.
COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) -- David Tainsh, a tough, retired Marine sergeant major, prayed for the safe return of his only son from Iraq, but when two grim-faced Army officers arrived at his house early one morning, he expected the worst.
His son, Sgt. Patrick Tainsh, 33, a scout with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, had been killed by a roadside bomb while patrolling near the Baghdad Airport.
Since getting the news of Patrick's death in February 2004, Tainsh and his wife, Deborah, have been on a journey that included a year of pain, frustration and hopelessness.
"When your husband looks at you and says, 'I don't have a reason to go on living,' you feel shut out," said Deborah Tainsh, 52, Patrick's stepmom.
A military casualty assistance officer helps families following such a death, and free grief counseling is offered. But the breakthrough for the Tainshes came when they found the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a support group for all who have lost loved ones in the military.
Through TAPS, they found others who had experienced losses. As they recovered, the Tainshes attended classes and became peer-mentors to assist others.
"You have blood families and soul families. TAPS puts us together at the soul," said Deborah Tainsh, who has written a book, "Heart of a Hawk," to honor her son and has pledged all the proceeds to TAPS.
During a visit to nearby Fort Benning this month, President Bush had a tearful meeting with the Tainshes and 24 other military families who had lost loved ones.
Tainsh acknowledges that some parents blame Bush for their loss, but the parents who met the president at Fort Benning -- where many of the soldiers who fight in Iraq and Afghanistan are trained -- were supportive and wanted him to make sure their loved ones didn't die in vain.
She said she handed 100 e-mails expressing support for the president to a Secret Service agent, and a tearful Bush wrote, "Patrick, thank you for your courage. I promise not to let you down" on the back of the Patrick's last letter -- one that would be delivered to his parents only if he were killed.
Tainsh said news media coverage of Iraq, the portrayal of the military as immoral by some anti-war activists, and doubts about the value of the military's sacrifice have created an added burden for families who lose a loved one in the war.
The Tainshes say Patrick's death was especially painful for them because he had overcome drug problems and a rambling lifestyle to find what seemed to be his true calling. He signed up at age 29, older than many recruits, and became a model soldier, his parents said.
His death left a hole in their soul, they said.
"I felt that there was no reason to exist anymore," said David Tainsh, 62. "This was my bloodline. Now I had nothing."
After the funeral, their grief became overwhelming and threatened to unravel their marriage, and old friends seemed to shun them, possibly because they were uncomfortable with the loss.
"The rest of the world can continue talking about their children," the father noted. "We have nothing to talk about but what was and what could have been."
How they learned of group
They learned of TAPS in 2005 through a television ad and attended the group's annual Survivor Seminar and grief camp for children, held each Memorial Day weekend in Washington. There, they connected with others who had suffered similar losses.
"That's when we had our biggest emotional turnaround," Deborah Tainsh said. "Civilians don't understand. They don't know what to say."
Her husband talked to a grieving father from Texas and eventually both men felt better.
"When you're with a TAPS family and they say, 'I know how you feel,' they do," David Tainsh said.
TAPS was founded by Bonnie Carroll of Anchorage, Alaska, a military wife who lost her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, in the 1992 crash of an Army plane. It has served about 10,000 survivors, including relatives of the more than 3,000 Americans who have died in Iraq.
"For every death there are on average 10 people who are profoundly affected -- parents, brothers, sisters, children, ex-wives," Carroll said.
Brad Snyder, a specialist on military survivor benefits, said no other organization provides the emotional support available through TAPS. During his 41-year career, he headed the Army and Air Force Mutual Aid Association and then the Armed Forces Services Corp., two major military support organizations.
"I think it was long overdue," Snyder said about emotional support that TAPS provides. "They meet the needs of the ... grieving and the ability to continue life in a meaningful manner."
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