In her picture, the girl colored her face yellow. Why? She was sad.
Another self-portrait portrayed big feet. The boy "just felt weighted down."
Another child's sketch showed his stomach bloated, as little stick-figure soldiers warred around him. His insides, he explained, were just sick.
It was an art exercise at camp. But this is no ordinary camp. The campers -- children, husbands, wives -- all have lost someone who died serving their country in the armed forces.
Helping families cope with the wages of war is the mission of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors -- TAPS -- a national not-for-profit organization with headquarters in Washington. Throughout the summer, TAPS has held "Good Grief Camps" for children and other survivors.
The goings-on may look like your average arts-and-crafts sessions. But, says TAPS' Ami Neiberger-Miller, "these are therapeutic activities to teach kids how to deal with loss." (Neiberger-Miller knows grief. Her brother, U.S. Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, was killed in Baghdad in 2007.)
The camp uses simple things like drawing self-portraits to draw out from the kids their feelings and concerns. Then it teaches them how to deal with those feelings.
Some activities are peer-to-peer. "We'll put a bunch of eight-year-olds together in room. ... There is an unspoken understanding. ... They know what the others are going through." The camp also uses adult mentors: active duty and recently retired military service members who are trained as grief counselors.
Teaching coping mechanisms is particularly important for children, Neiberger-Miller observes. It is not about making them feel good this weekend. It is something they will need the rest of their lives, so they know how to deal with their feelings "when dad is not there to teach them how to ride a bike."
Grief lasts a lifetime. Learning how to cope is an inestimable gift.
The work of TAPS extends far beyond the camps and kids. The death of a service member significantly affects, on average, 10 loved ones. Starting at the notification of death, TAPS tries to identify as many of them as possible, offering counseling and other services. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all ask families if they would like to be contacted by TAPS.
TAPS was organized in 1994 after an Alaska National Guard C-12 crashed, killing all eight aboard. From the start, it has been run and staffed by survivors and military family members. Over the years, the outfit has been battle-hardened by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also helps those left behind through suicide. (Last year, 169 active and reserve duty service members took their own lives.)
And TAPS works. An expert on survivor issues at the National Military Family Association acknowledged, "These are the go-to people that we reach out to when people reach out to us and say they need help."
Serving America's veterans is not something that citizens should just leave up to the government. Yes, government must provide fair compensation for service and for the injuries and losses incurred as a result of military service. But letting veterans and their loved ones know that they are important, cherished and vital part of our communities -- that's a job for all Americans.
Summer is a season of recreation and relaxation: picnics, outings and summer camps. But it's worth remembering that we can enjoy those peaceful pleasures because of those who have served and sacrificed.
Serving those who served -- and their families -- shouldn't be a seasonal thing. The need is ever-present. Groups like TAPS make a difference. So should the rest of us.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.