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Volunteer mentors support families of fallen

(U.S. Air Force graphic)

(U.S. Air Force graphic)

WASHINGTON -- The day Scott Warner saw Marines standing at his front door, his world came to a crashing halt.

The servicemembers told Mr. Warner that his son, Marine Pvt. Heath Warner, had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq's Anbar province.

Mr. Warner and his family, including his two younger sons, tried to come to terms with the tremendous loss while also attempting to navigate a huge and vastly unfamiliar military system.

"We were thrust into this military world that we didn't know how to interact with and didn't know how to connect with," he said. "At the same time, we had to deal with the death of our son."

Mr. Warner eventually found the support he needed through the military and volunteers in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping families of the military fallen. And nearly four years later, he's now dedicated himself to ensuring other families don't experience that same sense of overwhelming confusion after such a profound loss.

Mr. Warner is a volunteer with the TAPS Peer Mentor Program, a peer-to-peer program for people who have lost military loved ones. The program pairs survivors who are further along in their journey of recovery with those who are experiencing a more recent loss.

"It's someone saying, 'My story is quieter now, and I want to help others along with the process,'" said Debbie Dey, the mentor program manager.

Mentors offer everything from a shoulder to cry on to connections to helping resources, Ms. Dey explained. Mentors aren't counselors or advisors, she added, they're new friends who will commit to being there for others.

Mentors ideally are paired with survivors within 48 hours of their request for a mentor, Ms. Dey said, and the goal is to match people based on relationship first, followed by circumstances of death and branch of service. So, a mother of a Soldier who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan will be paired, if possible, with another mother whose Soldier son died in similar circumstances, she explained.

The similarities help to create common bonds, Mr. Dey said.

"Survivors are so grateful to have an ear from someone who understands their loss," she added.

In turn, the mentors often gain as much from the relationship as the person being mentored.

"It's very therapeutic on both sides," Ms. Dey said. "And it can offer a stepping stone for both relationships. Their circumstances may be different, their relationship with a loved one may be different, but they're offering each other hope for the future."

Meagan Staats said she has found healing by serving as a peer mentor. But just four years earlier, she never imagined being able to undertake the task. On Dec. 16, 2006, two soldiers came to her home to notify her of her husband's death. Her husband, Army Staff Sgt. David Staats, had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. The devastation was immediate and life-altering, she said.

"My stomach still hurts when I see soldiers in Class A's," she said, referring to the dress uniforms the notification team members were wearing.

Mrs. Staats sat with the soldiers for several hours, showing them pictures and sharing stories about her husband. But her thoughts were on her daughter, whom she had dropped off at a birthday party a few hours earlier, and how she was going to tell the 7-year-old that her father was now dead.

When her daughter arrived home, Mrs. Staats said, she didn't sugarcoat the news; she told her daughter that her father had died in Iraq. Her daughter went into her room and screamed into a pillow. "I felt so hopeless," she said. "It was traumatic."

Mrs. Staats avoided counseling, and she and her daughter struggled with the weight of the loss. Having heard about TAPS, she and her daughter went to their first TAPS regional meeting eight months out from their loss, marking "the start of our healing," she said.

Two years later, she was asked to become a mentor. After extensive online and in-person training, she was assigned to be a mentor for a woman in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"I was scared to take that on, because I felt responsible and didn't know if I could help her," she said. "I weighed the decision for a few days."

Mrs. Staats decided to make the call and "just listened and listened," she said. "Hopefully, that was helpful for her."

She since has mentored nearly a dozen other widows through TAPS. She's now mentoring two women, one of whom she has never met. But they exchange text messages and e-mails frequently, she said.

Mrs. Staats has benefited so much from her volunteer work she refers to it as self-serving.

"We really help each other on our journey," she said. "It's healing to me to feel like I'm serving a purpose."

Mr. Warner describes being a mentor as "paying it forward."

"The only people who can understand and really help other people are the people who have walked in the steps that they're walking," he said.

But like Mrs. Staats, Mr. Warner has had his moments of self-doubt. He recently was called on to mentor a father from California whose son had died while home on leave from a deployment. The servicemember died in his father's arms. The father took a leave of absence from work, but due to a procedural glitch, he was terminated from his job. The family dipped into most of their financial assets and was heading toward foreclosure.

"It was the worst-case scenario in trying to provide some type of encouragement," Mr. Warner said. "Not only did they lose their son and their life turned upside-down, their whole life was coming unglued. It was really hard."

Mr. Warner talked the family into attending a TAPS national conference, where he and other TAPS members offered as much emotional support as they could. This was a tough situation, Mr. Warner noted, but still rewarding to him to help.

"Being a peer mentor has been a very positive thing," he said. "Having relationships with people who don't judge, who offer encouragement, those are positive things. There's no wrong way to grieve. It's the journey you're on. You have to walk it."

Mentor relationships can become lasting ones, Ms. Dey noted. She's heard of families staying in close contact or taking vacations together. But whether they stay in touch for a month or for years, "the bond is very genuine," she said. "It's a beautiful and unique relationship."

Mrs. Staats said she's just grateful for the opportunity to help others, and herself along the way.

"The loss is profound, but what we've gained is immeasurable," she said. "I've never known friendships like this."

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