Reportage

ABILITY TO LET IT GO. HOW AMERICAN VETERANS TEACH TO COPE WITH THE PAIN OF LOSSES

“These sweets are from Iraq, a servicewoman brought them yesterday”, the hosts put traditional eastern sweets on the table. TAPS office in Washington is welcoming Ukrainian women, who are veterans or servicewomen. They came to the USA in the framework of the project “Ambassador – Veteran Diplomacy” to tell about realities of the Russian-Ukrainian war and take over the experience of the American colleagues.

TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors) is an organisation helping families surviving a tragedy of fallen service members. Bonnie Carroll, the founder and the president of TAPS, a retired US Air Force Reserve Officer lost her husband in war. About 10 years ago her personal experience induced her to start a program of mutual support to those who had faced a similar loss. It started due to the efforts of a few enthusiasts. Now TAPS operates in 34 countries including Syria, Georgia, Turkey, Canada, Poland, Kosovo, Nigeria, Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq. Recently Ukraine joined the list, when TAPS opened its office in Dnipro almost a year ago. There are 13500 TAPS members and it operates without state financing.

TAPS philosophy is to preserve memory of the fallen service members with everyday actions. “Everything we do is focused on what kind of lives have the fallen lived and also on the fact that we still love those people”, the activists explain.

TAPS Office in Washington. Photo by Olena Maksymenko

Yulia Mykytenko, one of the members of the Ukrainian delegation, a platoon commander, officer-mentor of Ivan Bohun Kyiv Military High School, says that she signed a contract and went to the front in 2016 together with her husband. She became a commander of reconnaissance platoon, and her husband was killed in two years. Everybody is listening to her with a sincere compassion and interest. “I’m so sorry to hear that!”, Bonnie says and a real sympathy is felt in this common phrase.

There are sports equipment, awards, rewards, photos from competitions and different activities in the TAPS office. There is a space for children with  their letters addressed to the fallen parents. There is also a cosy room with comfortable armchairs, magazines, TV and very big windows, where you can talk privately. There are rooms for briefings, offices, and also a kitchen, where you can prepare a cup of coffee.

TAPS Office in Washington. Photo by Olena Maksymenko

Bonnie Carroll explains how she sees this place, which can hardly be called “an office”: “Here you can sit, rest, just talk. We tried to organise everything here like at home. It is the place, where you can come, find resources, support, experience and finally unification. It is very important that we can operate worldwide. We are by your side in your fight”.

There is a familiar face on a photo in one of the rooms. It is Andriy Shyrokov, nickname “Family man”, a fallen serviceman of Ukrainian Volunteer Corps and the 54th brigade, a father of six children including two adopted ones. A yellow-blue flag is near the photo. Now you feel really at home: you are welcomed, and heroes of your war are honoured.

TAPS Office in Washington. Photo by Olena Maksymenko

The majority of TAPS staff are veterans. The communication is easy in spite of a language barrier of some participants. Very soon the Ukrainians start taking off and presenting their chevrons, and they receive TAPS chevrons and coins in return.

Support of those whose military loved ones committed suicide is a separate TAPS program. Apart from pain of loss, such survivors also face social disapproval and infinite feeling of guilt. There are many experts working in TAPS and the main message they try to send to people in such a grief is: “You are not alone”.

“We have several great teams supporting relatives of those servicemen, who committed suicide”, Bonnie says. “But the best thing you can do is just listen. In the majority of cases it is important for people to know they will be heard and supported; to know they can share what has happened with no shame or disapproval. We show that there are other mothers, widows, brothers and sisters, who also lost their loved ones as a result of a suicide. They have also come here. They know that they are not alone. So, it is important to give them support and if they wish, to introduce them to people whose loved ones also committed suicide. One more way to help is to ask what kind of support such people need”.

Ukrainian veterans and servicewomen in TAPS office. Photo by Olena Maksymenko

While TAPS-USA office resembles a big house full of various activities and mutual support, in Ukraine the story is just beginning. We speak on the phone with Tetyana Khorolska, the head of TAPS-Ukraine in Dnipro, who lost her husband five years ago.

Tetiana says that now TAPS-Ukraine works with approximately 70 families. They include not only widows, but also parents of the fallen and volunteers.

Some features of TAPS work in Ukraine are: lack of experience and resources; the fact that the war is happening in own country and too little time has passed since the moment of loss for wounds to become scars; mentality peculiarities. 

TAPS-Ukraine team with American colleagues. Bonnie Carroll is the fifth from the left. The photo is from TAPS-Ukraine Facebook

“It is very difficult to unite families unless there are some special dates or awarding, because people isolate themselves in their grief, and unfortunately, our mentality, our understanding of pain is unambiguous: we must visit cemetery often, never marry again, stop having progress, but only mourn, because we have lost the best part of our family: either son, brother or husband…”, Tetyana shares her observations.

She remembers herself after her loss and how she found strength to continue living and bringing up her children: “No matter what happened in the family, we need to live our life: I think, my husband wouldn’t have wanted seeing me miserable,  crying constantly and not developing. That is why this project was important for my personal growth, and not remaining in the state, when they inform you about the death of the loved one. It was important for me to find a great number of youth programmes for the children, so that they could have different trips in free from school time. I am a member of National Defence Office of Ukraine in Dnipropetrovsk region. My main task was rehabilitation of the wounded, later I started dealing with rehabilitation of children and wives. It is still difficult for me to talk to parents, who have lost their children, they are a special group. We have Lubov Dmytrivna, a wonderful woman, who having survived such a tragedy, remains socially active. She shows how it is possible to continue living with her own example”.  

American colleagues come, communicate, share their experience, provide trainings. Bonnie Carroll allowed to translate and adopt to our realities her book. TAPS-Ukraine signed a number of memorandums with organisations participating in the joint projects. Also a cooperation agreement between Dnipro local council and TAPS-USA was signed.

The photo is from TAPS-Ukraine Facebook 

“We are waiting for the opening of our new office and are actively looking for financial resources to cover the rent. Before that one friendly to us organisation allowed us to use one of its rooms. TAPS-USA helps us mostly by providing trainings and information about youth programmes and mentoring. Now we expect them to come with a three-day training of mentors for families with one deceased parent. It is a large-scale programme. Participants will have an interview with a psychologist, then there will be a training for three people, then these three will teach the others… We are still on the learning stage here”.

TAPS cultivates ability to let it go, ability to transform pain into something constructive, to move further, to find sense of life once again. It shows that experience connected with death, which people would rather not have, can make those surviving it stronger and wiser. 

The main photo is from TAPS-Ukraine Facebook

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