Elizabeth “Lizzie” Yaggy, 9, of New Orleans, and Anna Lee Daniel, 11, of Baton Rouge, live in different cities but they share a common heartache with thousands of other children. They’ve both lost fathers who were serving their country in the U.S. military.
Lizzie’s father was a U.S. Marine pilot who died in an aviation accident, after serving in overseas deployments, according to Erin Oliver Yaggy, Lizzie’s mother. Anna Lee’s father died of blood cancer following exposure to burn pits at Camp Victory, Iraq, where tons of munitions were destroyed after Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to Alice Daniel, his mother and Anna Lee’s grandmother.
Lizzie and her mom and Anna Lee and her grandmother were in Baton Rouge for a three-day program at the Crowne Plaza hotel for the families whose loved ones have died while serving in the military. About 200 people attended the program, which was hosted by the national nonprofit group Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
“TAPS is a national program for all those who are grieving the loss of a loved one in the military,” said Bonnie Carroll, TAPS founder and president. “We have over 60,000 families all over America who are part of the TAPS family — and it is a wonderful family.”
Last year more than 7,000 people attended 149 TAPS regional seminars like the one held in Baton Rouge on Saturday, as well as camps and retreats for parents and children, she said. Several participants said they hope the seminar will spur enough interest to establish a local care group.
“This is a safe place where we can take off the armor that we put on every day and the masks that we wear, and we can talk about our loved ones and we can cry and we can laugh and share wonderful memories,” Carroll said.
All the participants wear photo-buttons of their loved ones, and she had one of her husband, who was killed in an Army aviation accident in 1992.
“At that time, there was no national program for all those families grieving a loss in the military,” Carroll said. “TAPS was created to benchmark the best practices of peer-based, emotional support and programs to help the traumatically bereaved.”
Despite how their loved ones died, whether in action, service-related health issues or the latest scourge of the U.S. military — suicide — the key is to heal and find hope, she said.
TAPS has a program called “post-vention” to support family members who have lost a loved one to suicide, Carroll said. The families record information about their service member and share it with the Pentagon to aid in suicide prevention efforts.
“That gives meaning and purpose to our families that they can maybe save a life in the future,” Carroll said.
Erin Oliver Yaggy, Lizzie’s mother, put together a photo album of her late husband, Maj. David “Worm” Yaggy, for her daughter, who was 18 months old when he died in the aviation accident. It helped her heal, she said, and is a record of his life.
“When I felt alone and was the only one, TAPS was there to help me take the next step,” Yaggy said. “As military families, we need to be strong, but being strong can work against itself because you put on armor and you don’t want people to know how much pain you are in. But here you are in a safe place to let that armor down so you can heal.”
Alice Daniel, Anna Lee Daniel’s grandmother and mother of Staff Sgt. William Austin Daniel, of the Louisiana National Guard, discovered the TAPS website while surfing the Internet. She got involved, is a peer mentor and is hoping a local care group can be established.
“What TAPS teaches you is, you can mourn at your own speed, but eventually you get to a place where you are comfortable celebrating the life of your loved one,” Daniel said.
Dawn Lucia, who drove up from Reserve, said she was very nervous before she arrived but felt right at home as soon as she entered the building. She said she lost her husband, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, five years ago, also from cancers from burn pit exposure.
“Everybody has been so helpful, so sweet, and just sharing their stories you know you are not alone,” Lucia said. “These are people who understand. It’s like finding your place in life again. I wish I knew then what I know now (about TAPS). This is a wonderful organization.”
Most of the attendees were wearing red T-shirts with the group’s slogan, “Remember the love, Celebrate the life, share the journey,” emblazoned on the back
The weekend will end with a balloon release on Sunday, where TAPS families will send notes of love to their heroes in heaven.
For information, go to www.taps.org or call TAPS at (202) 588-8277.