In March 2001, Army Pvt. Donald Wilson and his fiancée, Nancy Phimmasone, were married here in Bell County. By 2012, Wilson had risen to the rank of sergeant first class when he died while on active duty, where he served as a fire direction chief in a mortar platoon.
Now alone with her four children, Phimmasone began the process of grieving. Much of that process played out within the confines of Fort Hood, aided by the people who make up the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). According to the organization’s website, TAPS “… offers compassionate care to all those grieving the death of a loved one serving in our Armed Forces. Since 1994, TAPS has provided comfort and hope 24 hours a day, seven days a week through a national peer support network and connection to grief resources, all at no cost to surviving families and loved ones.”
TAPS puts on both regional Survivor Seminars and Good Grief camps across the U.S. Just six weeks after SFC Wilson’s death, Phimmasone chose to attend her first TAPS event with her children.
“… We did not feel we were ready to grieve outside of our home. I have to admit, day one was rough. To see so many people, especially all the children that were at the event because they, too, lost a parent made my heart hurt, and was overwhelming, then we went to our room and just cried.
“On day two, after being able to just grieve on day one, we were OK to give hugs to strangers and recognize our common pain. We grew a bond with other Gold Star families, and learned that we are not alone. TAPS has gone above and beyond showing us countless times that we are not in this alone,” Phimmasone said.
While attending their first TAPS event, Phimmasone learned of another service available to military survivors, the Soldiers’ Kids Involved in Fishing Fun (SKIFF) program.
As she sought out activities for her children to participate in which permitted her to participate right alongside them, Phimmasone found both TAPS Good Grief camps and SKIFF fishing trips a perfect fit.
When asked how her children responded to attending Good Grief camps, Phimmasone stated, “They enjoy being around other kids that understand them. To know that they are not alone has helped take mourning and turn it into a celebration of life. Sad tears turning into tears of joy is big progress.”
The family was treated to its first SKIFF fishing trip in the summer of 2013, and then again in 2014.
As the family prepared for this summer’s Fort Hood TAPS events, Phimmasone once again reached out to SKIFF organizers to offer her kids something special before this year’s round of Survivor Seminars began. Phimmasone said the SKIFF program is “… the breath of fresh air that’s needed before we attend our events. (The) kids and I have so much fun getting away on the water, leaving all worries behind.”
As Phimmasone and her childen, 15-year-old Asia Wilson, 12-year-old Qwentin Wilson, 8-year-old Aiyana Nolen and 5-year- old Isaiah Nolen headed out on Belton Lake together Thursday, she asked each child to predict how many fish they might catch in their four-hour adventure. Phimmasone’s own guess of 40 fish was the highest of all.
The party began their trip at 6:15 a.m. by using downriggers to catch white bass and hybrid striped bass during the first half of the trip, and then used fresh, dead shad to catch blue catfish during the second half of the trip. By 10:30, as they headed back to the boat ramp near Frank’s Marina, the team effort had netted a total of 45 fish.
Along the way, Phimmasone and her family got to take in sights of abundant wildlife, cruise by the Belton Lake waterfall and enjoy hotdogs and ample quantities Funyuns together. As the kids stepped off the boat, they were already planning ahead for next year’s trip.
SKIFF trips are offered free of charge and are funded by the Austin Fly Fishers fishing club. SKIFF trips are available to children who are separated from their parent due to that parent’s military duties, and to those children whose parents passed away while on active duty. A call to 254-368-7411 to reserve a date is all that is necessary to arrange for a four-hour trip.