Fargo, N.D. --
As many people recuperate from an exhausting holiday weekend of fun with family and friends, five Airmen from the North Dakota Air National Guard reminisce about a different type of weekend. A weekend that truly represents what Memorial Day is about: honor, dedication and devotion to fallen military members and their families.
Tech Sgt. Jodi Renschler, Staff Sgt. Samantha Kolness, Staff Sgt. Mandi Hagen, Senior Airman Mandy Herrmann and Senior Airman Kaila Margheim gave up their beautiful weekend, used personal vacation time and paid their own plane ticket to attend a Good Grief Camp in Washington, D.C. through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, more commonly known as TAPS.
"I don't really consider it 'giving up' my weekend. I feel that it's my duty to give back, and I can't think of a better way to do it," Kolness said.
Compassion is addicting. This is the fourth year that both Kolness and Hagen have attended the Good Grief Camp. This was the first year for the rest of the North Dakota Airmen who attended, and most likely it won't be their last.
"This experience has changed my life and I can't imagine spending Memorial Day weekend anywhere else. We are with the kids from sun up to sun down while the surviving parent is in the adult side learning how to cope with their loss as well," Hagen said.
The weekend is full of fun events for the kids along with grief work to help the children deal and heal from the loss of a loved one, typically a parent. The weekend consists of grief activities, including a city tour of Washington D.C., a 'Good Grief Bash' with food, games and even a performance by the Washington Redskins Cheerleaders and the U.S. Navy Drill Team.
Another important part of the weekend consists of a balloon release with a letter inside that the kids write to their loved ones who are up in heaven, an emotional event for Hagen and something that hits close to home for her as a single parent.
"I am so glad this program is out there in case anything ever happened to me and my daughter was in this position. Volunteering my time is the least I can do for a family that has made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom," Hagen said.
"There are no words to express the feeling of listening to a seven year old explain how his daddy jumped on a bomb to save the three men in his truck. The heartache could be felt and seen in the tears running down his face. I know that he had some small comfort in knowing that we, his military brothers and sisters, still care and we are here for him."
More than 347 children attended the Good Grief Camp this year. All of the mentors for the Camp are volunteers from the military or a military association.
"TAPS also is just not for families that have lost someone to a war, but they help families that lost a loved one to suicide, accidents and natural causes. They don't judge how your loved one died, they help all those who are grieving their loss," Kolness said.
Kolness, along with Hagen, was one of the first Happy Hooligans to attend the Good Grief Camp in 2007. The profound effects of the program are what keep her coming back.
"I have had the same mentee for four years now, her name is Laura. Her dad passed away in 2004. She was very close to her father, even at the age of three, she felt loss. And she has changed so much since I first met her. Since I've been volunteering for TAPS, it's amazing how some of the kids that I've been around have changed and are more open about their fathers' deaths," Kolness said.
For more information about the TAPS program, visit www.taps.org.
For more information about this news release, contact Capt. Penny Ripperger, 119th Wing public affairs officer at 701-451-2194.