Aug 24, 2010
Good Grief Camp; For Children of our KIA's
Camp allows youngest victims of war to express their loss
Fayetteville News & Observer
Sun Aug 22, 2010
PINEHURST- The small children of fallen soldiers and Marines covered James Gobble, laughing as he pushed his way off the floor and gently tossed them off his back.
Gobble was among the adult volunteers at Good Grief Camp, an event held at a Pinehurst resort hotel Saturday aimed at helping families cope with the loss of loved ones who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who committed suicide after returning from combat.
"Most of these guys lost their dad, and it's the dad that usually does the wrestling," Gobble, a former Marine who lives in Wilmington, said after the kids eventually let him up off the carpet. "With some of them, you can really tell there's a deficit, so I'm a jungle gym for a day."
Among those seeking piggyback rides were brothers Ethan and Tristan Hotchkin. Their father, Army Pfc. Gunnar R. Hotchkin, died in Afghanistan on June 16. A paratrooper based at Fort Bragg, he was 31 years old.
"He was in a vehicle, and there was a bomb underneath," explained Ethan, 8. "I'm sad about it every day."
On his T-shirt, the boy wore a large button embossed with a photo of his father, a square-jawed man wearing glasses and the scarlet beret of the Airborne Corps. If his dad could be alive for one day, Ethan said, they would go fishing. Tristan, 4, rarely ventured more than a few feet from his big brother.
While the nation celebrates the end of combat operations in Iraq this month, images of happy soldiers and Marines returning home can be difficult for the families of those whose spouse, parent or sibling returned in a flag-draped steel coffin.
In another part of the hotel, mothers and other adult family members were receiving encouragement, advice and counseling from volunteers, most of whom had also lost loved ones. The "Survivor Seminar" was organized by the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, known as TAPS.
For the children, who varied in age from toddlers to teens, the day was a mix of play and therapy.
Vanessa Gabrielson, 27, lost her father, Army 1st Sgt. Dan H. Gabrielson, when his convoy in Iraq was attacked on July 9, 2003. A former third-grade teacher, she traveled from Fort Hood, Texas, to help lead a group of kids on Saturday.
"Survivors are their own best experts," Gabrielson said, quoting a key TAPS tenet. "I draw a lot of strength from being here, seeing how brave some of these kids can be. When you're with them, it can't be about you. If it were, you'd sit in the corner and cry."
Among the activities, the youngsters were asked to write messages to their lost fathers.
With a marker, Ethan carefully scrawled: "Dad, I love you so much." He signed his name and drew two angels with haloes on the thin paper.
Later, the Hotchkin brothers and the other children gathered on the lawn of the landmark Carolina Hotel. Their messages were tied to balloons, and they released them into a brilliant blue sky.
They squinted to see as the balloons rose into the wind and drifted out of sight.
"Dad is an angel, and he's in the clouds with God," Ethan said with certainty. "He's in heaven."