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Celebration of life: Army veterans help children of fallen soldiers cope with loss

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Posted: Sunday, August 28, 2011 12:00 pm

By Rebecca Rose

Killeen Daily Herald

There are few tears in this place.

There are stories about ice cream parlor visits, trips to the zoo, and stories about playing in a neighbor's pool. There are games, such as Scrabble, and activities, including arts and crafts. There are things every child remembers from summer camp, such as hayrides, campfire circles, and making new friends.

It may be called a "grief camp," but for 48 Texas children and teenagers, the Camp Erin/TAPS three-day, two-night camp in August was about celebrating life, not focusing on death.

The camp, held Aug. 16-18 at Parrie Haynes Ranch in Killeen, was designed for children ages 6 to 17, grieving the loss of a parent or sibling who served in the Armed Forces. With bereavement education interspersed with typical summer camp activities, young campers are given an opportunity to talk about and memorialize their loved ones.

A major part of the program involves mentoring; campers work side by side with active duty or retired soldiers, many of whom know all too well about the kind of loss the children are dealing with.

At the camp in August, every mentor was from Fort Hood.

Lt. Brianne Rojas, with 15th Finance Battalion, 13th Financial Group at Fort Hood, volunteered to be one of the mentors.

"I think it's really important that (those who) are currently in the military give back somehow," Rojas said. "They lose that connection when they lose that loved one."

Rojas served as a mentor to Celeste Duarte-Cruz, 7.

When Celeste didn't feel like speaking, she would lean into Rojas' ear, whispering the answer to questions she was asked about her father. Celeste wore a pin with a picture of her dad, and showed it to anyone who asked.

His name was Bradley Espinoza.

Espinoza was killed Oct. 19, 2009, in Qwest, Iraq, when the vehicle he was traveling in was hit by an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood. Espinoza was 26.

Rojas' husband, Staff Sgt. Reynaldo Rojas, is currently deployed to Afghanistan.

"We have a 4-year-old daughter. If he doesn't come back, I'm in the same boat as they are," Rojas said, motioning to a group of children playing games behind her.

"At any given day, any one of these kids could be mine," she said, fighting back tears in her eyes. "I would want a soldier to do the same thing for my little girl."

But Rojas isn't the only Fort Hood volunteer with a personal connection to what the campers are going through.

Sgt. John Wayne Russell was part of the 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), out of Fort Campbell, Ky. Like Espinoza, he was only 26 when the Black Hawk helicopter he was in collided with another outside Mosul, Iraq.

Russell died from injuries he suffered in the crash on Nov. 15, 2003.

To Sgt. Christopher Settembrino, Russell was a mentor and a friend.

At the time of Russell's death, Settembrino was stationed in South Korea, surrounded by fellow soldiers who, like himself, had yet to experience the death of a friend in a war that only just begun.

"It was hard for me," Settembrino said. "I don't think I let myself grieve. We didn't know how to grieve over it. We just read his obituary and never mentioned it again."

Today, Settembrino is with 2nd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, at Fort Hood. He made the decision to volunteer for the camp as a way to finally confront a loss he had lived with for more than eight years.

"Going through this helped me resurface those feelings that I had," he said. "I was able to talk to other mentors who have been through the same situation. It made it easier for me to talk about it."

The bond of loss

Scott Burgess was a 32-year-old husband and father of two when he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 84th Field Artillery Regiment, 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, in Baumholder, Germany. Burgess suffered fatal wounds from small-arms fire in the Faryab province of Afghanistan.

He died April 4.

Five months later, Burgess' daughter, Amy, was sitting at an arts and crafts table, next to Settembrino, her mentor for the three days. The eight-year-old and her sister, Haley, 10, both attended the camp.

Like Rojas and Celeste, Settembrino stayed close to Amy for the three days, working with her through grief counseling sessions, or joining her on activities like hay rides and nature walks.

He said there were times when Amy spoke of her dad in the present tense.

"She's still dealing with it in her head," he said. "I think she understands, to a point, what happened. But I think a part of her is still thinking he's coming home."

"I'm trying to listen for those moments, when (she's) ready to open up," Settembrino said. "I'm not going to push."

At the end of the three days, campers gathered together in a circle made from a piece of twine.

They were asked to cut a piece of the circle, and pick three different colored beads to represent their mentor, their favorite memory of the weekend and the parent who died. The materials would be used to make a bracelet; something they could take with them.

As they went around the circle, each camper and mentor took turns picking out their beads and sharing a memory of their lost parent or friend.

"My friend died in 2003," Settembrino said, as he sat next to Amy in the circle. "This week helped me really deal with it."

When it was her turn, Amy turned to Settembrino and whispered in his ear. He listened, nodding patiently until she finished.

Her favorite memory of her dad was the time when he took the girls to get slushies, and his teeth turned different colors, Settembrino said, carefully repeating her words to the group gathered in the circle.

Contact Rebecca Rose at rebeccar@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7548.

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