SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Taps, a signal to military members as the end to the day, has been given new meaning to family members who have listened to its somber tune echo through graveyards, symbolizing the end of their loved one’s life.
“When my dad passed away in an aviation accident, it was 1997 and during the time in between the first Gulf War and the later Middle Eastern wars,” said Capt. Nathaniel Lee, weapons and tactics assistant flight commander with the 527th Space Aggressors Squadron. “TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) was actually an organization that was in its infancy, it was only a few years old at that time.”
TAPS was first created to help families of those who have died in service to their country, and since has expanded to assist families of suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder and stateside accidental death; helping 75,000 surviving family members, casualty officers and caregivers since their creation.
Lee, his mother and brother were some of the 75,000 helped during the last 20 years.
“My mom found out about TAPS and the Good Grief program for surviving children, and we went that next summer to Washington,” Lee said. “It was really the first time I had the opportunity to interact with other kids who were going through what I was going through. That was a really rare and special thing that helped me in my own grief journey.
“In addition to dealing with the primary loss, my family, my younger brother, my mom and I were dealing with a lot of the secondary loss,” he continued. “We were dealing with a new school, new friends, a new environment and all those other things that come with the life transition after the loss.”
Fast-forward to adulthood, Lee entered the Air Force, pinned on captain and recently become a father when TAPS wove its way into his life once more.
“Coming full circle now to being an adult and an active duty military member, I just saw, the call for volunteers go out in the base bulletin for TAPS and remembered it from my childhood,” said Lee. “It was just after I promoted to captain, which was the rank my dad was when he had passed away in his accident, and I just had a kid of my own. It all seemed to kind of click really well together for me as a good time to give back to a program that helped me out in my time of need as a kid.”
Since his initial volunteer work, Lee has come to know the TAPS program, as well as its fellow mentors, well.
“Captain Lee and I first met at a Regional TAPS event that was held in Colorado Springs last March, 2017,” said Melissa Hermosillo, the administrative assistant for the 21st Medical Group and TAPS volunteer. “Some of the things I have learned about [him] is he is a wonderful husband, great dad and good leader. He has been a part of groups that I have led here in Colorado and Washington. He has been active with the children that he has mentored and is a great role model to other Gold Star children.”
The Gold Star children Lee worked with not only changed his life for the better, but theirs too. However, the relationships did not come without their challenges.
“Going into [the TAPS program] I was pretty nervous,” Lee said. “Some kids are really in pretty intense phases of their grief journey and need someone to listen to them and talk about [their parent] with, so I was nervous, when I first came back as a mentor, about how I would be able to share my experiences and my story, but once I got there, the TAPS program did a fantastic job combining [mentors with kids] at an age-and-time appropriate level.”
Despite Lee’s reservations, Hermosillo confirmed his coming in with the experience of losing a parent, just like these Gold Star children had, makes the world of difference to the children he mentors.
“Captain Lee is what we at TAPS refer to as a Legacy Mentor. He wears a purple shirt at camps to identify him as such,” she said. “At TAPS events, children will wear red shirts and our active duty service members wear blue shirts as mentors. The combination of the red and blue (purple) is a way for kids to know that they are also survivors. They have walked in the shoes of these children and can share their experience in a way that many of us cannot.”
While Lee’s passion for the children he serves and the nation he serves is great; his family, composed of his wife, Samantha and daughter, Victoria, hold the largest place in his heart.
“I don't think I've ever seen Nate happier than when he's with his wife and daughter. I've been fortunate to be around when she was born, and some of the most heartwarming moments happen when he's playing with his daughter ignoring the rest of us because he loves her so much,” said Capt. Kyle Rimando, wing executive officer for the 50th Space Wing.
As his journey as an officer and parent continues, Lee had a few things he hoped his daughter would obtain as their lives progress.
“The things that I hope to happen as she grows up, matures and learns is, first: independence,” he said. “That’s something I really appreciated from my childhood.”
Due to the nature of military life, there are levels of independence military children learn to develop, whether their parents intend it or not.
“Another one is the value of service, and it doesn’t have to be military service,” Lee continued. “I want my daughter to understand the importance of giving a part of yourself to something bigger than yourself, in whatever form that is. I hope one day she can look at my ‘going-away plaque,’ my uniform or any other trinkets I’ve collected from my career and be able to have some pride in that herself; that her dad served his country.”
Finally, Lee said he wants to communicate to her the importance of his service and why he works as hard as he does.
“I think for the military kids who have a good understanding of what it is their parents are doing and why it’s important to the national security of our nation, it helps them with the picture of ‘our family is doing something important.’”
Which is something Lee understands in regard to his father’s sacrifice, especially as he serves present day alongside his family, constantly keeping U.S. Army Capt. Donald Lee in his thoughts.
“At an event, we did an activity where our theme was stars. Where our kids as well as our mentors, who are encouraged to participate, [honored] their loved ones, be it family or friends [with a written message] and we hung them around the room,” Hermosillo said. “On his star Captain Lee wrote, ‘I have a new little girl who looks just like you and is just like you...’”
TAPS has provided an avenue for Lee to not only let out his conflict regarding his father, but grow as a leader and develop a sense of safety regarding his family.
“One thing I’ve always kept in mind is, should anything ever happen to me, this is an organization that will be there to support my family. To me, that is such an important thing to continue to have available for my family, and every other family of every person I serve with,” Lee said. “This is an organization that will be there for them if they ever need it.”