By MARK THIESSEN
GIRDWOOD, Alask - Jennifer Tullis still keeps her husband's camouflage uniform in the closet, all starched, ironed and folded, even though he died 12 years ago.
"He took so much pride in that," she said, smiling at the memory of her husband, Michael Peterson, a powerlifting Marine from Tooele, Utah, whose nickname was Ogre.
"I lost my husband when I was 19 to suicide, which is one of the harder ways because there's so many stigmas attached to it," said Tullis, of Valley Center, Calif.
Tullis and about 75 other military widows - ranging in age from 21 to 62 - shared memories of their loved ones while hiking rugged wooded trails, canyoneering in the backcountry and rafting the rapids of Alaska's Crow Creek last weekend. They were participants in the second Alaska Adventure excursion organized by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
Tullis turned to the group for support when Peterson died, and now gives back as a peer mentor to the growing ranks of military widows and widowers whose spouses or significant others died in combat, from illness, suicide, "every type of loss imaginable," said TAPS founder and president Bonnie Carroll.
"What brings us together and really binds us as a community is their life, and their service and their sacrifice to this nation. This is about honoring the life, and remembering the love far more than it is about mourning the death," Carroll said.
Tullis simply calls TAPS family.
"These people are family because when you go through the loss of a spouse when you're young, it's something that no one understands if they haven't lost their spouse because it's unnatural. So other people are going through anniversaries and having babies and buying houses, and you're grieving," she said.
Carroll founded TAPS two years after her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, the assistant adjutant general of the Alaska Army National Guard, and seven other Guard senior leaders died in an Army C12 plane crash.
"Certainly for our family it was a devastating tragedy," she said from a second-story patio at the Alyeska Resort, some 50 miles south of Anchorage in scenic Girdwood. "But out of that, we formed a small group that recognized the healing power of that peer connection, of coming together with others who truly understand the depth of this loss."
That was the intent behind the Alaska weekend, to create a safe haven for the women where they could tell the stories that perhaps their friends and family back home have tired of hearing.
"What we do here isn't therapy, but it is tremendously therapeutic. You know, the word counseling doesn't really apply. There's a much better word, and that's companioning, when you're working with someone who has lost a loved one," Carroll said.
The Washington, D.C.-based group has helped more than 30,000 survivors since it formed in 1994, and most of them, about 22,000, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
The Alaska retreat didn't involve whiteboards, speakers or seminars. Instead, it was only intended to allow the women to enjoy their time together in Alaska's wilderness. The organization provides other, more directed seminars, including Good Grief Camps, across the nation. A National Military Suicide Survivor seminar will be held in October in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Last year, TAPS took 10,649 calls on its 24-hour resource and information line, receiving more than 184,000 calls since it formed 17 years ago. It also made 63,452 calls to survivors last year, everything from reminding survivors they are not alone to following up on a wide array of needed services.
Participants here had the best of Alaska for their journey.
They toured an old gold mine, rappelled down cliffs, hiked up Mount Alyeska, saw bears, petted a moose (it was safely behind a fence at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center), and rafted the rapids of Crow Creek outside Girdwood. The spent the last two days of the trip in Anchorage, taking part in a scavenger hunt, in which one task was to find a cardboard cutout of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in a gift shop, and a marathon before heading home.
"Touching a moose is the most amazing experience ever," said a beaming Jennifer Hankins of San Diego. "I've heard horror stories that they attack people, so to touch one and, like, feel their antlers, and they're velvety, and you just want to kiss their face."
Hankins found TAPS after her fianci, Matthew Trent Hicks Sr., died from a sudden illness while serving aboard a Navy ship. They have a son, Matthew Hicks Jr.
Hankins said many of her friends disappeared because they didn't know what to say to her after Hicks died in 2008. She shut out others, she said, because they didn't want to hear her honest answer when they would ask, "Are you OK?"
It wasn't until she found support within TAPS that things changed.
"It was like somebody opened the doors to what is now life. I could sit there and talk about Matt all day long and nobody would shut me up. They just wanted to hear everything, and I wanted to hear everything, and I felt like I was normal again. Because when he died, I didn't feel l like I was normal at all," she said.