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'Good Grief Camp' unites kids of fallen service members

By Sandra Endo, CNN
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Fallen troops' kids grieve, bond at camp
  • Three-day camp lets kids bond with others who have also lost parents in military
  • Each camper is paired with a mentor from the military
  • Organizers say attendees learn they're not alone in their grief
  • "There's not as much weight on my shoulders from all the sadness," says one boy

Arlington, Virginia (CNN) -- Eleven-year-old Anthony Balmer is excited to be back at camp this Memorial Day weekend. It's a place for him to play games, talk to his mentor, and visit some historical sites around Washington. But, he says, he feels a mix of emotions: "Mostly here you get happiness and sadness."

This is no ordinary camp, but a three-day camp for young survivors, kids of fallen service members.

Balmer's father, Ryan, served in the Air Force and was on his first deployment in Iraq in 2007. The technical sergeant was just a week away from coming home when he was struck and killed by a roadside bomb.

Death is a shared experience at this camp for children, who come from all across the country. It's run by the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, and this year the "Good Grief Camp" has nearly doubled in size, with a waiting list of families wanting to participate.

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Organizers say last year roughly 1,200 participants came to the camp; this year they maxed out at a little over 2000.

Founder and TAPS president Bonnie Carroll says, "Families who come to TAPS gain coping skills. They learn they're not alone in their grief. They meet other family members who truly understand what they're going through and they're going to be there for them. It's a family. This is America's family for all those who have served and sacrificed."

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Anthony's mother, Danielle Balmer, says the camp is a place where her son can feel understood. "The main thing that he gets from it is that he can be with kids who have gone through what he's gone through and what he goes through on a day-to-day basis. That's the thing I love. And he loves coming back here every year." She says Anthony wants to be a mentor to younger campers when he gets a little older.

This year, her 4-year-old daughter Gabrielle, who was just an infant when her father was killed, is going to the camp for the first time.

Danielle Balmer says kids of fallen military members are unique. "They've had to grow up faster than most kids, and I think they have a better understanding of life and different aspects of life. Unfortunately I'm sad that they've had to have that, but I'm happy that they do, because I think that makes them be better people and more compassionate and appreciate things more."

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The camp, which is in its 17th year, pairs each child up with a mentor who is in the military. Part of the program focuses on talking about feelings and expressing both the good and the bad. "I feel like it's OK to cry, and there's not as much weight on my shoulders from all the sadness," Anthony says.

His mother, Danielle, likes to focus on a brighter future for her family. She's engaged to widower Christopher Sweet, who is a master sergeant in the Air Force. His wife was a technical sergeant in the Air Force and died of cancer two years ago. He has three kids of his own who are also in the camp.

Sweet says, "We're going to provide them a lot of love and that's based on the love we've learned from our spouses, and they still live on in our family."