DENVER — They traveled from all over the country to meet at a cattle ranch on the remote Eastern Plains of Colorado. They came to ride horses, pen cattle, rake muck and bask in the great outdoors. However, they came for much more — parents, siblings, spouses; survivors of loved ones lost to war came to heal from grief.
Kristen Howell and her two young children were living in New York in the winter of 2007. Just four days before Christmas, pregnant with her third child, she received the news of her husband's death. Pfc George J. Howell, deployed to Riyadh, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, was killed in action when his vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb.
That day Howell and her children became survivors. In many ways this word is synonymous with strength, hope, fortitude. Howell described surviving in one word: stuck. At least, that's how she felt for the first several years.
"When you grieve you kind of get stuck in the muckery," she said. "The shock of grief. It takes time to come out of it."
Howell knew about the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, known as TAPS. It's there in the stack of forms you receive to sign in the wake of a loved one's death: a form that gives TAPS permission to contact you. It wasn't until three years after her husband's death that Howell acted. She attended a widow's retreat in West Virginia. She went zip lining and whitewater rafting and talked about how the loss had affected her family, how it had changed them. She regained some of what she'd lost.
"There's no way to explain finding someone who understands your kind of crazy. It's amazing," she said. "It helps you move through grief, pushing yourself to stand. You're stuck and you can't even get out of bed in the morning, but you're doing just that with a group of people who are stuck as well. It gives you a sense of pride. It opens you up and grows you."
Bonnie Carroll, the founder and president of TAPS, understood that reality first hand. In November 1992, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll was killed, along with seven other soldiers, in an Army National Guard plane crash.
In the aftermath of her husband's death Carroll struggled to find others who could understand the pain of her grief. So, she created TAPS, a national organization that helps the families of America's fallen military heroes cope with the grief and trauma. Funds for the organization are raised through events year round and services are free to families, other than travel costs.
Among their services are outdoor retreats like the one that had brought Howell and 25 others to the The Carr Family's Colorado Cattle Company and Guest Ranch in New Raymer from Sept. 24 through Friday.
Retreat Coordinator Kylynn Maxwell chose the ranch for its unique nature. She said it's probably the only one in Colorado that's both a guest ranch and a working ranch. A place where they would not only ride horses, but also care for them and the cattle.
"Horses are very therapeutic and very reflective of their riders," she said. "Just being around them they really mirror your attitude. They read you like a book and tell you a lot about yourself. We combine that with activities that challenge them physically and make them work together and communicate."
Long horse rides in the pasture, campfires and late night chats, penning and roping cattle made for a true dude ranch experience.
"Some people expect we just sit around and cry the whole time," Maxwell said. "Crying is good too but that's not all we do. We experience together, people share their stories, but that's mostly organic not structured."
Suzanne Hackett came all the way from Bangor, Maine, specifically to ride the horses; something she had never done and her daughter would have been proud of her doing. When her daughter Ensign Tara Hackett, who worked with wounded warriors as a navy nurse, took her own life, Suzanne Hackett immediately turned to TAPS. They helped her and her husband work through the grief of losing a child and to help her sons deal with the loss of a sibling.
Learning to deal with the grief together has made them closer, she said.
"I can't imagine a greater pain," she said. "I wouldn't want to compare my pain to anyone else's, but people ask me, 'What greater pain is there than to lose a child?' The only thing worse would be if she didn't know how much I loved her.
"It might seem trite, but she's on my mind every moment of every day. It's painful at times, but I'm grateful that we had a relationship that's left me with such lovely memories of her."
Hackett's done more than cope. She said the loss of her daughter not only made her more determined to appreciate each day, but also to help and educate others as well. As a speaker for the National Alliance of Mental Illness, she educates people on the dangers of unhealthy medications prescribed to those who have high-stress work environments.
Hackett believes that when her daughter began medication for depression it pushed her into suicide.
"If I could give a suggestion to (the Navy), I'd say maybe don't put a new nurse on the most difficult floor. They think they can handle it, but they don't know how hard it's going to be," she said. " It's hard to see someone you love going through so much pain. It broke her heart working with young injured combat vets. She ended up on meds that were not good for her and they changed her."
For Hackett, riding and caring for the horses, helped her feel free of the clutches of grief at times. Doing something that would have made her daughter proud gave her reason to smile.
"You find a lot of metaphors for grief in the outdoors," said Rachel Hunsell, TAPS expedition program coordinator. "We immerse ourselves, we get as far away from cell service and civilization as possible to utilize the healing powers of the outdoors. People really push themselves."
Hunsell lost her brother Lance Cpl. Jonathan Kyle Price in Ramadi, Iraq. It was 2006 and she was 14 years old. School kept her occupied and she didn't allow herself to feel the pain of loss. In 2013 she began to participate in TAPS and the outdoors programs changed her life. From hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru to kayaking the coast of South Carolina, Hunsell has pushed past physical and mental boundaries.
"If you're living a life you never thought you would, why not do things you never thought you could," she said. "As a sibling, grief doesn't feel validated, but I'm a different person after TAPS. I'm allowing myself to feel and I've quit pushing it down."
In February of this year Hunsell left a job that she said didn't suit her and began working for the program planning expeditions and retreats.
"It's extremely rewarding for me knowing that people are moving through the same things as me," she said. "The best things about working for TAPS is the survivors. We get all over the country, all over the world. A lot of our closest friends are in different time zones, it's a network of family."
Jazmin Oliver recently moved to Littleton from the Caribbean, where she studied medicine after her husband died. TAPS helped her restore some the connection she felt was lost.
"You're not really a part of the military community anymore," she said. "It takes your whole life. You lose friends who can't relate. I'm very grateful for organizations like TAPS who didn't forget about us. To be in a room full of people who know how you feel and put into words what you may not know how to explain yourself; it's great."
Oliver lost her husband, Petty Officer 3rd Class Johnny Oliver, in Bahrain four years ago. After only two months of marriage she lost the person who she thought she would spend the rest of her life with.
"I didn't really know what real pain was back then. I thought I did," she said.
"The blinders were taken off and I saw the world for what it was. I've done stuff I was never OK with before. Trying new things and be open; life can be changed in a positive way."