WASHINGTON — Taylor Dudley was 13 years old when she lost her father, Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Dudley, in combat on June 7, 2011, in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, Dudley, now 18, was recognized for showing leadership through her own grief by Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors during its annual awards and fundraising gala at the National Building Museum, in Washington.
Dudley was presented with the Senator Ted Stevens Leadership Award. The late Stevens was instrumental in getting TAPS off the ground.
Since its creation in 1994, TAPS has helped more 55,000 survivors of fallen military through their helpline as well as programs such as retreats, camps and seminars for adults and children.
Dudley, from Jacksonville, North Carolina, has made great progress in her own grief path, says Kelly Griffith, from TAPS. Dudley hosted a 5K called Run for Duds (her father’s nickname) in her father’s honor; the money she raised went to TAPS.
When a service member dies, their families are forced to move off the base within days or weeks of their passing. “We want to make sure that they know that their loved one isn’t forgotten and that they’re not forgotten,” Griffith says.
TAPS partners up the children of fallen service members with military mentors. “It creates this opportunity for the kids to experience that military environment again,” she says.
John Jarecki, Taylor Dudley’s TAPS mentor, says, “TAPS is more about getting these kids together. That’s what it’s all about.” Jarecki lost his father, an Air Force pilot, in 1981 when his F-4 went down.
Jarecki describes Dudley as bright and a leader. He says she welcomes other kids in the program and makes sure they feel comfortable.
Dudley says the most important thing she has learned throughout the program is that she’s not alone. “I’m not alone; they’re not alone; we’re all in this together. We may not have the same stories but we still feel similar,” Dudley says.
Bonnie Carroll, the founder of TAPS and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, says Taylor Dudley is the embodiment of the TAPS mission.
The TAPS Honor Guard Gala is the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year. The money raised goes toward TAPS programs.
All TAPS services are free for anyone who has lost a loved one in service — regardless of the manner of death or their relationship to the deceased. There is also a 24/7 helpline for military survivors at 800-959-8277.
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