Beyond Memorial Day, Support for Survivors

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Memorial Day may be the symbolic start of summer, but for the families of men and women who died serving in the Armed Forces, it’s a day for reflection and remembrance.

Ami Neiberger-Miller lost her brother Christopher while he was fighting overseas in Iraq.  Mary Gallagher’s husband also served in Iraq, but died here in the United States after struggling silently with post-traumatic stress disorder.  These women are connected through an organization called T.A.P.S, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 6,453 personnel have died, according to the latest statistics from the defense department. Those men and women leave behind more family and friends who have to cope with the loss.  The T.A.P.S. program brings together survivors for peer-based support and counseling, connecting families of the fallen with people to share their grief and help with healing.  It also serves as a reminder that no two stories of loss are the same.

A Casualty of Combat

Ami Neiberger-Miller and her younger brother, Christopher, grew up in the Bronx.  She prefers to talk about his life before she talks about his death. Christopher loved coffee, was a history buff, read philosophy. 

“He could take an idea and just kind of poke at it and turn it around and see how far it would go,” Neiberger-Miller said. “He was a really an incredible person.”

While on vacation at the beach in Georgia with friends five years ago, she learned Christopher had been killed in Iraq just three days after his 22nd birthday.

She said his death became part of her identity. It changed how others interacted with her.

“Grief will re-write your address book,” Neiberger-Miller explained. She reached out to T.A.P.S to help deal with the isolation and loneliness that was part of her grieving process.  The organization connected her with a woman who had also lost a younger brother in Iraq.  As it turned out, their brothers were buried just a few rows apart at Arlington National Cemetery.

(Photo: Christopher Neiberger was killed in action in Iraq in 2007./ Courtesy of Ami Neilberger-Miller)

In this new friend, Neiberger-Miller said, she found someone who understood what she was experiencing, “Someone who would just listen and let me pour out this experience.

She wishes the public better understood more about grief and loss.

“The research shows it takes five to seven years for people to reach a new normal after suffering a traumatic loss of a loved one,” said Neiberger-Miller, who now works as the T.A.P.S. public affairs officer, helping other families share their stories about the loved ones they’ve lost.

PTSD: Death After a Silent Struggle

Mary Gallagher’s husband Jim, a Marine, served in Iraq from March – September 2005.  He returned home for eight months, but had begun another round of training just 10 days after his arrival in the United States to prepare for another deployment. Mary and Jim, along with their three children, lived in Camp Pendleton, California, at the time. 

During those eight months, Gallagher said, she could tell her husband was sad and struggling with the transition, but she had no idea the extent of his suffering.

On May 23, 2006, Jim Gallagher died.

“He hung himself in our home in California,” Gallagher explained through soft sobs.

Gallagher said his death was beyond devastating, “I just couldn’t understand what happened.” All the signs she was taught to look for when someone is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder were missing.

“My understanding with PTSD was that you would see all these extreme behaviors: excessive drinking, not sleeping, screams and sweats, and maybe even some short-tempered or violent behaviors,” Gallagher said.  “I never saw any of that.”

She said over the past six years, she’s learned that PTSD, “is not as loud as people think.”

“It is very quiet and very silent for many of them,” Gallagher said recalling her husband’s experience.  “He struggled alone and he died alone.”

(Photo: Jim Gallagher in his dress blues./Courtesy of Mary Gallagher)

Mary Gallagher is now a peer mentor with T.A.P.S.  For her it’s a way to, “be there for someone who is walking that journey of grief.” She said it allows her to connect and mourn with others, but it’s also a way to remember lost loved ones.

“You can laugh and smile and cry and hold each other, and sometimes you really don’t have to say anything cause you just kind of know,” Gallagher explained.

On Memorial Day

While many people will hit the beach or a BBQ to mark the day, both women will spend the day honoring the ones they lost.

For Neiberger-Miller, Memorial Day will start very early.  Currently based near Washington D.C., she will be working with T.A.P.S. to take about 800 families to Arlington National Cemetery for national observances and to visit grave sites.  The president traditionally pays a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on this day.

She will also take some time for herself, to visit her brother’s grave in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. One thing that has changed since her brother died – Neiberger-Miler has had a daughter. She said it’s important to her that the family creates a Memorial Day tradition that involves remembering her brother and his service.  Neiberger-Miller said she bought her toddler-age daughter a special red, white and blue dress to wear to the ceremonies on that day.

Gallagher will make a trip to Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island along with many other families to place flags at all the headstones, including the grave of her husband. She will also place about 60 flags on her lawn in Lynbrook in honor of those who served, those who died, and those who are still serving in the Armed Forces.  Most importantly, she and her children will remember Jim for the life he lived, “as a husband and a father.”