Heroes Come Together to Support their Guardsmen

  • Published
  • By Capt. Penny Ripperger
  • 119th Wing Public Affairs
There are many types of heroes. There are heroes whose mission in life is to reach out and help those in need and there are other heroes who have overcome insurmountable grief and now use their experience to help others.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS,  National Seminar took place in Washington, D.C., over Memorial Day weekend. It's an event that brings together a multitude of these types of heroes in all shapes and sizes, to include the families of fallen military members and support staff from the North Dakota National Guard .

Supporting the need

This year, Jane Johnson, Bernadette Ternes, Angie Christensen and Jessica Clark-Woinarowicz, all from the North Dakota National Guard, attended as support staff for the TAPS National Seminar. Johnson, Ternes and Christensen are full-time licensed social workers with the North Dakota National Guard Chaplains Office. In addition, Father Dave Zimmer, a pastor with St. John the Apostle Church in Minot, attended as a supportive member for the families attending the event.

"While I love working with all Soldiers and Airmen, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is working with the families of our fallen. I can't imagine spending a Memorial Day weekend without being at TAPS," Johnson said.

Johnson attended the TAPS National Seminar for the first time in 2005 and she has been back every year since, making this year her sixth year in a row.

"The first year I was asked to go I remember thinking, 'Great, I'm going to spend my Memorial Day weekend crying,'" Johnson said.

It was an especially emotional time for her because she had lost her father, a WWII Veteran, the previous year on May 26.

"I was hesitant to go because I wanted to be home with my family for that first anniversary of his death. Now looking back, it was the best place I could have been. I came back from that first TAPS seminar energized; I couldn't stop talking about it. Sure, we did cry, but we also laughed," Johnson said.

In 2005, five people with the North Dakota National Guard attended the TAPS National Seminar. This year eight families, to include 28 family members and five support staff from the North Dakota National Guard, attended the event.

"TAPS is a place where our families fit in. They don't need to explain how they are feeling or what they are thinking because everyone attending is experiencing the same thing. Whether it's your first time attending or your sixth, there is something to learn and experience," Johnson said.

"Our families say that knowing they will be attending TAPS is what gets them through the year, the long winters, the anniversaries."

TAPS is described by many who attend as a program that helps people by connecting them to others who have gone through or are going through similar experiences. It gives families the chance to connect and grieve together.

"Families have the opportunity to hear wonderful speakers, experts in their fields ranging from knowing about their survivor benefits to dealing with grief and all the topics in between," Christensen said.

The weekend also offers a Good Grief Camp for kids where they get the opportunity to work one on one with a mentor.

"For many of these kids, their mentor stands for who their parent or sibling was. They bond and get very close with their mentors in just three short days," Christensen said.

The application process for North Dakota families to attend the conference has evolved over the years, but the dedication that the North Dakota National Guard has toward its military members has not faltered since the first year the organization began taking part in the program.

"Since 2005, our state (North Dakota) has been one of the only states to pay for family members of fallen military members to attend the event. The reason families are able to go is through donations from organizations, businesses and individuals that support the families of our fallen service members," Johnson said. "That's a true testament of how the community and the North Dakota National Guard look out for its members. If family members want to attend this event, we'll get them there."

Sacrifice for Freedom

The North Dakota National Guard began a Sacrifice for Freedom event in 2008, which honors North Dakota families of fallen service members with beautiful memorials made by Michael Letney, with Letney Designs, based out of Oklahoma.

"The Sacrifice for Freedom event is usually held the day of or the day before the families fly out to attend the TAPS National Conference in Washington, D.C.," Clark-Woinarowicz said. "By pairing the events together, the majority of the families have the opportunity to fly out together."

This year was Christensen's first year attending TAPS, and as a new social worker in the program she was amazed and awed by the generosity of the North Dakota families.

"I met a couple of the moms at the airport for the first time ever and they both just threw their arms around me and squeezed. That's just how these families are, so open and welcoming," Christensen said.

This year the Sacrifice for Freedom event took place on May 26 at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck, N.D. Six families received memorials and 35 family members attended a dinner at Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk's home afterward. Sprynczynatyk is the adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard.

"After supper, we walked over to the Global War on Terror Memorial for a Candlelight Memorial where families were able to share stories of their loved ones," Clark-Woinarowicz said.

In addition to the Sacrifice for Freedom event, the North Dakota National Guard has a goal of implementing a regional TAPS seminar within the state.

"We are hoping to be on the TAPS docket for a North Dakota retreat either next year or in 2012. It would be wonderful to be able to have a regional event because we would be able to bring in not on the Global War on Terror families, but also families of all war conflicts as well as battle buddies who may still be grieving and suffering with the loss of their comrades," Clark-Woinarowicz said.

Families of the Fallen

Eileen Goodiron knows first-hand of the grieving process as the widow of the 11th North Dakota National Guard member who was killed in action since the Global War on Terrorism began in 2001.

Cpl. Nathan Goodiron, 25, lost his life in Afghanistan on Nov. 23, 2006, from injuries sustained when his unit came in contact with enemy forces using small-arms fire and rocket propelled grenades. He was a member of the North Dakota Guard's 1st Battalion, 188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment.

"Nathan was a funny guy who liked to live life. I knew him my entire life; we even went to Head Start together when we were kids," Eileen said.

In addition to Eileen, he left behind their two children, Joely and Alexander, who are now 8 and 6.

"I realized that I wasn't doing enough for my children when my daughter told me that she thought Nathan was the only Soldier that had died in Afghanistan. She thought she was completely alone," Eileen said.

This prompted Eileen to attend TAPS for the first time in 2007, and she has come back every year since.

"It's a different experience every year. I have found friends who are going through the same thing that I am going through. I have connected with these women. We're moving on and now learning how to give back and celebrate the good times together," Eileen said.

TAPS also has had profound impacts on Joely and Alexander. Eileen explained how the event gives her children the chance to feel normal again because they get the opportunity to be around other children in similar situations.

"You don't know what is going through the mind of an 8-year-old. You don't know what is a big deal to them if they don't share it with you," Eileen said as she explained how Joely had concerns at daycare when she noticed that other dads were picking up her playmates after work and she had no father to come get her.

Although healing from such a loss is a lifelong process, Eileen is ready to take the next step. She is in the process of becoming a trained mentor with TAPS.

"After Nathan was killed, I didn't know about TAPS. I remember searching the Internet, looking for someone to talk to. I ended up talking to a woman who lost her husband to cancer. Now I know I'm going to be OK and I can focus on helping others. I want to be there for someone else who is going through what I went through," Eileen said.

Once Eileen is a trained mentor she will be connected with widowed women throughout the year to help counsel and support. In addition to Eileen, there are four North Dakota family members who are trained mentors through TAPS. The trained mentors serve a special role at the TAPS National Conference, as well.

"At the conference, if someone walks out of a room, a mentor will follow. If someone is having a difficult time, a mentor will comfort. Everyone at the TAPS National Conference comforts each other, but the mentors wear a special T-shirt that mark them as someone a person can talk to if they are struggling," Johnson said.

Eileen will continue to be a part of TAPS for a variety of reasons. Her participation continues to give her perspective, gives her the opportunity to give back and most importantly, it gives her and her children a chance to talk about Nathan.

"Nathan would be happy with where we are at today and how the North Dakota National Guard has treated us. He loved the military; in fact, he re-enlisted right before he was killed. He wanted to do his part and serve his country and still be a civilian. The Guard let him do that," Eileen said.

As a Nonprofit, TAPS Relies on Donations
TAPS is partially funded by the generosity of others. Those who would like to learn more can go to: http://www.ndguard.ngb.army.mil/jointforce/specialstaff/chaplain/officeofchaplain/Documents/ND%20TAPS%20Program.pdf or call 701-333-2012.

Tax-deductible donations can be sent to the North Dakota National Guard Foundation, Attn: TAPS, P.O. Box 5511, Bismarck, ND 58506-5511.

For a memorial poster of the North Dakota National Guard Soldiers who have been killed in the Global War on Terrorism, go to: http://www.ndguard.ngb.army.mil/jointforce/soldiertribute/Pages/default.aspx.