The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he was appreciative and spirited after meeting surviving family members of service members during the 9th Annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors annual Honor Guard Gala last night at the National Building Museum here.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford accepted the TAPS Honor Guard Gala Military Award on behalf of the men and women serving in America’s armed forces. He was introduced by Connor McCracken, the son of Army Reserve Col. David McCracken, who died of cancer in 2011 after serving for 30 years. McCracken, who serves in his high school’s Junior ROTC program, said he was honored to introduce the general.
“I’m really nervous, but he’s a really nice guy. He’s an amazing man. I’m glad he’s leading us,” McCracken said. Having gone through the TAPS Good Grief Camp, he added, he’s proud of how far he’s come in his healing process, and he hopes to join the military.
“It’s my duty to serve my country,” he said. “It’s my job as a citizen to partake and participate in defending it.”
Importance of Making Memories
As he took the stage to introduce the general, McCracken said his family finds it important to make memories. “I think I can top my brother and sister with the memory of introducing [Dunford],” he said. “Dad is smiling down on me for sharing the stage with ‘Fighting Joe,’” Dunford’s nickname for being a tough and effective leader on the battlefield.
“Even though General Dunford is a Marine, he also has a soft side,” McCracken said. “When he was leading the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, General Dunford wrote a personal note to the family of every service member who was killed in Afghanistan. It means a lot to know how much he cares about the soldiers and their families.”
Dunford said he asked Connor what his plans were after school, and he said he wants to fly planes or remotely piloted vehicles.
“I said, ‘What service do you want to go into?’ and he said, ‘The United States Air Force,’” Dunford said. “Of course, being joint, I said, ‘There’s airplanes in the Marines. There’s airplanes in the Navy. The Army has helicopters. Your dad was a 30-year Army colonel.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve invested quite a bit into it, so my mind is made up.’ So … I want to make sure you know that that young man right there is coming into the United States Air Force.”
Dunford said he accepted the TAPS Honor Guard Military Award on behalf of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, because they couldn’t be present at the gala.
They’re in places like Iraq and Syria,” the chairman said. “They’re in places like Afghanistan. They’re on the high seas, protecting freedom of navigation. With the millions we have in uniform, 258,000 of them tonight are in 151 different countries doing what must be done.”
He said the military has been deployed quite a bit over the past 14 years, but service members know organizations like TAPS are there to take care of their families.
“No organization is probably as responsible for that sense of confidence that we have had that our families will be taken care of as TAPS,” the general said. “We couldn’t be more appreciative of the courage of those who actually are survivors themselves, who in addition to going through that experience have children who have stepped up and become leaders to take care of somebody else.”
Sen. Ted Stevens Leadership Award
The TAPS Sen. Ted Stevens Leadership Award is presented annually to a surviving family member who lost a loved one serving in the armed forces, and it recognizes outstanding leadership on behalf of other military survivors. Taylor Dudley, daughter of Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Thomas Dudley, received this year’s award. She was 13 when her father was killed in 2011 while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, who served in the Marine Corps, presented the award and said that as the father of three daughters around her age, could only imagine what she went through.
Dudley attended the TAPS Good Grief Camp in North Carolina, and now volunteers as a TAPS peer mentor for other children. She also raised $3,000 for TAPS by organizing a 5K run in her hometown -- called “Run for Duds” -- to evoke her father’s nickname -- to honor him and to help the organization.
“I went through a huge transition in my life in the summer of 2011, but thanks to the amazing people in my life, I have grown immensely,” she said. “I learned to become positive. I spread my father’s name so he is never forgotten. I am part of his living legacy.
“My dad was an amazing man,” she continued. “He taught me discipline and respect, qualities that better me as a person while also keeping him with me. I saw him put others before himself and what kind and compassionate people can really do in this world.”
She joked that her father used to say he was kind of a big deal, and she thanked her family and TAPS for their support.
“My mom has been a big inspiration in my life,” she said. “When times are hard, she taught me to keep my head high and my faith strong. She kept me grounded and supported me through everything. My mom is my rock, and I don’t know what I would do without her. I’d like to thank the TAPS Good Grief mentors. You make a huge impact in all of our families’ lives, and we appreciate your dedication to us.”
Dudley said she learned important lessons from TAPS: that she wasn’t alone, how she could follow a health grief path, how she could cope with her loss, and how she could keep positivity close. She said she also made lifelong friends.
Dunford told Taylor that not only was her father a big deal, but “tonight, he’s looking down at you, and he’s going, ‘That’s my daughter, and you know what, she’s a big deal.’”
The TAPS mission
Funds raised at the gala will be used to support families of fallen heroes through programs such as the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp; the National Military Suicide Seminar and Good Grief Camp; TAPS Regional Survivor Seminars and Good Grief Camp; and TAPS Retreats for surviving spouses, parents, adult children and siblings.
McCracken and Dudley said they encourage fellow survivors to give TAPS a chance.
“It’s a wonderful experience; I highly recommend it,” Dudley said. “It’s one of the best things I’ve done. I’ve made amazing friends through it.”
McCracken called TAPS “an incredible organization“ that helps surviving family members cope with the loss of a loved one. “The pain doesn’t go away completely,” he said, “but there are people who have experienced it as well and can make it a little easier to help you cope with it.”
TAPS has offered support to more than 55,000 surviving family members of fallen military and their caregivers since 1994. It provides peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, healing seminars and retreats for adults, camps for children, casework assistance, connections to community-based care, online and in-person support groups and the 24/7 National Military Survivor Helpline at 800-959-8277, available for all who have been affected by a death in the armed forces. Services are free.