Photos by Chris Gordon
The past decade has seen the United States involved in two wars — one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. We’re all aware of them, we’ve seen the headlines. But for most Americans, the country’s battles are an abstraction. It’s something on the news, not part of the stories of other human beings.
Some Americans, though, can’t remove themselves from them — the wars have taken members of their family. Husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers: the all have loved ones who will never come home. This has unfolded thousands of times throughout the past 12 years.
“Even eight years later we still grieve,” Patty Stubenhofer, whose husband Mark was killed in Iraq in December 2004, said. “The biggest thing is to know we’re not alone, that there are people that remember.”
Losing a loved one in the military is unspeakable, but there are many organizations trying to ease the burden. One of them is TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Last season, TAPS partnered with the Capitals as part of the team’s annual Courage Caps program, which raises money for military charities through the sale of specific t-shirts and hats, some of them signed by Caps players. In 2011, Washington generated over $100,000 for TAPS through the program. For the second straight season Courage Caps — which was started five years ago by the team and has raised over $300,000 — will benefit TAPS, which offers various counseling and support services to families of fallen service members for free. This gear’s Courage Caps gear will be available starting next week on the Capitals’ website and in team stores.
“We’re really excited how the program has taken off, especially last year,” Elizabeth Wodatch, the head of the team’s charity work, said. “It really has an impact.”
On Sunday, the Caps hosted some of the families helped by TAPS for a skating party at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. The four Americans on the team — John Carlson, Joey Crabb, Matt Hendricks, and Jack Hillen — took the ice with around 150 kids and adults who have lost loved ones in the military.
“I had a blast helping out all those little kids,” Crabb told me. “They looked so happy out there. That’s great with some of the stuff they’ve gone through just to get back to being kids.”
The players were on the ice with the families are about an hour, sharing stories of their loved ones and “not talking about the Capitals’ record, or the power play and penalty kill” according to Crabb. One mother even gave Carlson her fallen son’s dog tags (seen posing on the right). It was the first time on the ice for some of the children, who were often helped along by members of the Caps offering tips for beginners. (Hendricks is right; don’t make the mistake trying to walk on the ice instead of pushing off.)
“Some of them are doing a great job, some of them are struggling, but we’re making it fun for everybody and that’s what it’s all about,” said Hendricks.
“This is a great honor for us to be out here today,” he added. “These families have been through tragedy and we’re just here to say thanks, give them a little bit of joy today. Without the men and women that do what they do for our country, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy this great freedom.”
In addition to the support services TAPS provides, the families also benefit from the community it offers, and knowing that other people are going through the same thing.
“The kids have met other kids and talk to each other,” said Stubenhofer, a mother of three. “Knowing that they’re not the only one whose dad didn’t came to their baseball game helps them a lot. It doesn’t make them happier but it makes them not feel so different.”