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Event helps military families work through grief

By: ERIN PRATER
April 6, 2013
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photo - J.J. McCracken, 6, prepares to release balloons tied to a letter to his late father, Sgt. Matt Simmons, while being held by volunteer Sgt. John Hopkins Saturday afternoon at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors' regional grief summit at Fort Carson. More than 200 family members and friends of troops who died while on active duty attended the annual summit. Photo by Erin Prater / The Gazette
J.J. McCracken, 6, prepares to release balloons tied to a letter to his late father, Sgt. Matt Simmons, while being held by volunteer Sgt. John Hopkins Saturday afternoon at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors' regional grief summit at Fort Carson. More than 200 family members and friends of troops who died while on active duty attended the annual summit. Photo by Erin Prater / The Gazette 

Cindi Simmons thought she was doing her daughter-in-law a favor when she accompanied her grandchildren to a grief seminar this weekend.

But she found she’d done herself a favor too.

“To see how others are grieving was a real eye-opener,” said Simmons, whose son, Matt, an Army chaplain’s assistant, died of a heart attack while leading a Bible study in 2008.

Simmons was one of 200 in attendance at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors’ regional grief summit, held Friday and Saturday at Fort Carson.

TAPS, a national charity, offers emotional and casework assistance to family members and friends of those who died on active duty.

The conference included speakers, discussion groups and a balloon release that allowed attendees to send handwritten letters heavenward with red, white and blue balloons.

Simmon’s granddaughter Ariana McCracken, 12, and her three siblings sent a letter to their “Daddy Matt."

Ariana's letter told her dad that she missed doing fun things with him like having strawberry ice cream-eating races.

Last year the number of U.S. troops who died by suicide far exceeded the number killed in Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press.

Due to that increase and a steady stream of troops who die due to accidents and illness, TAPS is assisting twice as many new members as it was two years ago, said Bonnie Carroll, the organization’s president and founder.

The grief of Simmons and McCracken is no less than that of family members of troops killed in action, said Carroll, whose husband died in an Army plane crash in 1992.

“When you think about national cemeteries, all the headstones are the same regardless of how they died,” she said.

“There aren’t big monuments to the war dead and little headstones for everyone else.”

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