Saturday night was our “family dinner” at our suicide-survivors’ conference in San Diego.TAPS provided us with fried chicken (I was one happy Texan!) and several other comfort foods.
We sat at tables with friends both new and old and everyone had the same precious look on their faces- exhausted yet grateful. I was feeling tired, emotionally stretched, excited, comforted, and thrilled to hear our key note speaker Marine Corps Sergeant Major Brian Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that role, his mission is to keep the nation’s top military officer — Army General Martin Dempsey — keenly aware of how the nation’s young men and women in uniform are faring and feeling. It’s a vital job after — as of Sunday — 11 straight years of war.
I first met Sergeant Major Battaglia in June at the Department of Defense-VA suicide prevention conference. He sat in the front row during our panel of survivors’ stories, and served as a grounding force for me while I poured my heart out.
I had no idea who he was, but was compelled to go thank him for giving me an encouraging smile when I struggled to grasp words. I soon learned that he played a very important role within our military, specifically working on suicide prevention. So, you can imagine my delight when I found out he would be speaking at the TAPS Suicide Survivor Seminar.
Saturday night, Sergeant Major Battagia spoke to our gathering of survivors, and encouraged us to continue sharing our stories. He honored our loved ones and affirmed what I, too, believe: they all died heroes.
He spoke of the love and support we all now have in TAPS and of his personal appreciation and awe of such a passionate and precious organization.
Lastly, he addressed the fiercest survivors among us, the children.
As a teacher, I was so incredibly moved by what came next. Sergeant Major Battaglia invited the children to come to the stage. He told them that that they were safe among their new TAPS family, and that they had a new family and set of friends who would do anything to help them.
Then, the not-so-musically-talented military hero led the group of tiny heroes in song. They sang That’s What Friends Are For, and brought the audience to tears.
The lyrics to the song ring so true to the heart of TAPS:
Keep smilin’, keep shinin’
Knowin’ you can always count on me, for sure,
That’s what friends are for.
For good times and bad times
I’ll be on your side forever more,
That’s what friends are for.
Hearing this giant of the military community sing to those children and promise his support touched me. It opened my eyes to a new kind of military, one that recognizes the problem and is working to solve it.
After I lost my husband, I felt that I had no support within the military — that his death would go unnoticed, and that others would join him.
I feared that the only people trying to change the suicide rate among our troops were those on the outside of the military. After tonight, I can testify that this is not true. We have a friend, an ally, and a warrior within the military named Sergeant Major Brian Battaglia.
TAPS’ mission was so obvious Saturday night. Bonnie Carroll and Kim Ruocco have spent countless days working to build strong links to the military. It would be easy for them to have written off the military, seen it as the problem, and gone on.
But that is not how it works in TAPS. This organization constantly works cooperatively with the military to find solutions to frustrating and devastating issues, including — but not limited to — military suicide. That is both powerful and amazing.
I was encouraged and inspired by the night’s events.
I want to speak to those who may be feeling like no one cares about the suicide loss of your loved one. I would like to offer you the promise of hope. You have the TAPS community, ably reinforced by Sergeant Major Battaglia and his team, working unrelentingly on behalf of you and your loved one. That’s what I learned Saturday night.
Rebecca Morrison of Texas was one of two widows Time featured in its July cover story on the surge in Army suicides. Her husband, Captain Ian Morrison, an AH-64 helicopter pilot, died in March.