WASHINGTON, April 16, 2008 – The sacrifice of military families who have lost loved ones in service to their country is integral to the strength of the military itself, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a speech here last night.

“Of those who serve, yours have paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said in his address to many military families gathered for the inaugural TAPS Honor Guard Gala here. “Your support of those who’ve served has been such an integral part of that service, of that sacrifice.”

TAPS, or the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, is a national organization in which families who have lost a loved one in military service can come together to help each other heal. It was founded by Bonnie Carroll after the 1992 death of her husband, Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll.

Though the military can never repay its debt to these families, its leadership has an obligation to reach out to these survivors, Mullen said.

“While we have progressed greatly in making sure that we take care of these families, there are still things we need to do,” he said. “We need to remain committed to ensure that we never lose touch with these families.

“[And] the best way for this to work is for us to support you, and that you support each other,” Mullen added, referring to TAPS.

The evidence of TAPS’ work was scattered throughout the room. Many of the families in attendance have lost a mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother in the global war on terrorism.

The organization’s success also was evident in a former Army sergeant first class who said just four months ago he had difficulty speaking without tearing up. His fiancée, Army Capt. Maria Inez Ortiz, 40, was the first Army nurse to die in combat since Vietnam. She was killed by mortar fire in Baghdad’s International Zone in July, just four months before she was to return home.

“The TAPS organization is a platform where all [military] family members that have lost a loved one can come and share their grief,” said Juan Casiano. “[It allows] us to come together where we can accept, understand, learn and then start living again.”

Casiano said his experience has provided him with an extended family that truly understands what it means to lose a loved one in military service.

That extended family includes Beth and Michael Belle, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven, was killed by sniper fire in Afghanistan on May 8, 2005, Mother’s Day. He was six months shy of completing his tour.

“I can’t imagine not being a part of this. The people that we’ve met through TAPS … are truly connected to us in a way that no one else is,” Beth said.

Still, she said, it took her a couple of weeks before she could look through the material the casualty assistance officer had left with the family. “When I did and I saw what TAPS was about, I made the phone call,” she said. A TAPS representative answered phone, and the two talked for more than an hour.

“She listened to me and she made me just feel like I wasn’t alone,” Beth said. “TAPS is an amazing organization. It’s been a lifesaver for us.”

TAPS offers many different programs, including peer support, grief support and other resources. Children can take advantage of “Good Grief Camps,” where they have a chance to meet others their age dealing with similar issues.

The organization is a supporter of America Supports You, a Defense Department program connecting citizens and companies with servicemembers and their families serving at home and abroad.

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