A sibling relationship should be a lifelong friendship, but for those losing a brother or sister who served in the military, the pain and sorrow can be overwhelming. Adult siblings left behind must contend with their own grief and shock, adjust to an altered family structure and assume new responsibilities.

To help brothers and sisters cope, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS held its first weekend retreat for siblings in 2008. The retreat was modeled after the organization’s regional seminars, which help surviving family members process their grief reactions, develop coping skills, and establish support networks.

“Siblings often experience what is known as disenfranchised grief,” said Stephanie Frogge, director of peer support programs for TAPS. “Everyone asks how their parents are doing, but no one asks how they are coping with their loss. This heightens their feelings of isolation and grief.”

Peer support programs, like the one TAPS provides, often play a critical role in healing from the traumatic loss of a loved one. Jenny Claiborn, 24, of Wister, Okla., told a reporter from the San Antonio Express-News that she struggled to grieve after her brother, Buddy Hughie, died in Afghanistan. “As soon as I got home, the questions I got were, are they (her parents) OK? Are you making sure they’re eating? I answered the phones. I arranged the funeral. I don’t feel I ever had time to sit down and grieve the way I should have.”

All of the retreat’s attendees lost a brother or sister in Iraq or Afghanistan, and are part of the TAPS Sibling Support Network, a virtual online support community. Membership in the network has swelled, doubling in size from 45 members in August to more than 90 by February 2008. In April 2009, the network had 140+ members. Participants share their feelings and concerns through a confidential email listserve and participate in monthly chat room dialogues on the TAPS website at www.taps.org.

About a third of the network’s members attended the 2008 retreat. For many, it was their first opportunity to meet face-to-face with people they have interacted with online.

Those still fresh in their grief and loss, turned to others for advice. Casey Umbrell, 24, of Savannah, Ga., lost her brother, Colby Umbrell, in 2007 and saw her fiancé deployed to Iraq only a week after Colby’s death.

She told the San Antonio News-Express that talking with other brothers and sisters through the network and at the retreat is helping her cope. She noted that you never “get over it” and said, “It doesn’t get easier, it gets different.”

Debra Shirley, 38, of Mount Sterling, Ohio, lost her brother Nathan Shirley twelve years ago in a helicopter crash has a more long term view. “It never goes away but you do incorporate it into your daily living. It’s like a scar – not readily apparent to others but you’re aware of it. As I get older Nathan’s death means different things to me. He and I were going to help my parents make decisions when they got older and now it’s just me.”

Membership in the TAPS sibling support network is free and designed for individuals who have lost a brother or sister serving in the Armed Forces. To sign-up go to the TAPS website at www.taps.org or call 800.959.TAPS (8277). A second retreat is planned for September 2009.

“How grief is experienced is mirrored by the relationships affected,” said Bonnie Carroll, who founded TAPS in 1994 with other surviving military families, following a National Guard plane crash that took the lives of 8 soldiers, including her husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll. “If you are a big brother and you lose your younger sibling, your identity is impacted. Your parents are now grieving the loss of a child and that also affects family relationships. There is a caring community within TAPS to help siblings.”

Headquartered in Washington, DC, TAPS is a national Veterans Service Organization providing compassionate care for the families of America’s fallen military heroes. TAPS provides peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, seminars, case work assistance, and 24/7 crisis intervention care for all who have been affected by a death in the Armed Forces. Services are provided free of charge. For more information go to www.taps.org or call the toll-free crisis line at 800.959.TAPS.

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Ami Neiberger-Miller

Media relations, writing, strategic communications, and social media are all part of Ami Neiberger-Miller’s daily workload. She provides clients with strategic counsel, designs campaigns, builds relationships with journalists, and crafts copy for social media, press releases, and publications. Helping nonprofit organizations, associations and businesses communicate more effectively has been Ami Neiberger-Miller’s passion and focus for more than two decades. 
Ami founded Steppingstone LLC in 2003 to provide communications and graphic design services for nonprofits, associations and small businesses. Her client roster soon included the American Forest Foundation, the National 4-H Cooperative Curriculum System, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. It expanded to include NAFSA: Association for International Educators, the Nature Conservancy and many others. From 2004-2007 while working as a consultant, Ami also served as the communications director for Sister Cities International, a national association of international city-to-city partnerships working to build understanding, education, cultural awareness, and economic ties. She supervised a staff of five and was responsible for the organization’s website, public relations, advocacy, publications, and member communications. She also published her first book in 2005 with the organization, Peace Through People: 50 Years of Global Citizenship. 
In 2007, tragedy struck when Ami’s brother, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Baghdad, Iraq during the troop surge. Ami managed media attention on her grieving family after being notified of her brother’s death. She became a public advocate for trauma survivors and those left behind following the death of a military service member. She served as a spokesperson and public affairs officer from 2007 through 2014 for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit organization that assists grieving military families. Ami cultivated relationships and worked on stories with reporters from the Associated Press, Fox News Channel, CNN, ABC World News, CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, National Public Radio, NBC Nightly News, C-SPAN, USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal and many others. She coordinated media interviews for a chapter in “For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism and Sacrifice,” by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrakesan. 
While working for TAPS, Ami continued to build and grow her consulting practice with Steppingstone LLC. She worked for several years on a grant funded project managed by the American Association of Community Colleges that supported thousands of older adults going to colleges around the country to re-train for new jobs during the Great Recession. In 2008 she began working for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), which provides pro-bono legal assistance to veterans and military service members seeking disability benefits. She managed media relations on behalf of NVLSP for the class action lawsuit, Sabo v. United States, which successfully won retirement benefits for thousands of service members with post-traumatic stress disorder who had been discharged without the federal benefits to which they were entitled. She continued to represent NVLSP in 2018 and worked with national and local reporters covering the military and veterans issues. Ami appeared on the radio show Healing the Grieving Heart to discuss “Loss & the Military.” To hear her interview with Dr. Gloria and Dr. Heidi, go to the following link: https://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/35107/loss-and-the-military

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