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Children of fallen military members gather for remembrance and healing

Children in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors express pain, loss and dreams through therapy, art and poetry.
Posted at 7:06 PM, May 29, 2023

Jedidiah Shelton is putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece: An outline of his hands.

But those hands will never be held by the intended audience, his dad, Chief Petty Officer James Shelton.

Jedediah is one of 500 children taking part in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Good Grief Camp in Arlington, Virginia, working through their pain, loss and dreams here through therapy, art and poetry.

Each child is paired with a military mentor to help guide them through the grief process.

Jedediah found his military mentor, Marine Corp. Captain Mandy Carnes here this weekend, bonding over their love for all things marine life.

"Marines and Navy actually worked together. And my dad was in the Navy and I was like, what if my dad met you?" Jedidiah said of Carnes.

Carnes, who has worked with TAPS for 10 years, says the annual event is part of an ongoing commitment to healing, connecting mentors and mental health advocates with families of survivors.

"There's a difference between unhealthy and healthy growth and we're teaching these kids the healthy way to manage that," Carnes explained.

The kids here have lost loved ones in a myriad of ways, some through combat and training exercises, and many by suicide.

According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, in 2020, 6,146 veterans died by suicide, 57% higher than that of nonveteran adults.

TAPS allows children to enter the program no matter when or how their loved one dies.

"The way that they understand or grieve is all different, but what's wonderful is we have just amazing people around us that can give the support for these kids and adults alike, because everybody grieves in their own way," Carnes said.

Bonnie Carroll, the founder of TAPS lost her husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, in 1992 when his C-12 crashed in Alaska, claiming his life and seven of his fellow soldiers. His death stole Bonnie's sense of community.

"Grief rewrites your address book. Some of the people that you know were your friends, your colleagues previously may not understand loss and how devastating it can be and may kind of drift away because it's tough. It's tough to be around us when we're hurting," Carroll said.

She says she created TAPS to allow families the space to feel what they need, whether that's joy or grief.

She was awarded the presidential medal of freedom for her efforts.

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This Memorial Day weekend, all of those emotions came together to form a tribute made from the outline of the hands of Jedidiah and his fellow survivors. That collage is assembled and then transported to Arlington Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by members of the 89th Maintenance Command.

Captain Carnes says she has the honor of delivering those tiny hands herself.

"I am there representing not only my service but the service of others in all branches and to be there to represent them and to place that there for everybody. It's bigger than me," Carnes said.

Note from the Department of Defense: Service members and veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Service member or veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans/Military Crisis Line for confidential support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 988 and Press 1, text 988 or chat online at