Friday, December 18, 2009
to learn more about Snowball Express, click the title of this post ot go to snowballexpress.org
Sgt. Kristopher Giuranna admits he tries to avoid the families of friends who didn't make it out of Iraq with him. Short condolences at their memorial services are about all he can manage.
Sgt. Kristopher Giuranna consoles a tearful 5-year-old Todd Gunterman of California at Cowboys Stadium.
"When you see the kids for that first time, it kills you," he said.
But it haunts him, too – the grief on their faces – which is one reason the 25-year-old Marine from Washington, D.C., found himself in Dallas last week along with hundreds of children of fallen soldiers from across the country.
Giuranna was among 17 mentors with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (known as TAPS to the kids) who followed Snowball Express, an annual charity event, to Dallas-Fort Worth.
Throughout a long weekend of bounce houses, buffets and other activities, mentors walked hand in hand with the kids, something between camp counselors and grief counselors.
"You take some Tylenol or Aleve to try to mentally prepare yourself," Giuranna said – not just for endless hours of roughhousing and babysitting, but "for what they talk about."
Among the hordes of children who trampled Southfork Ranch on Thursday, Kenneth Landrus wore his dead father's Army-issued sun hat. It came about level with Giuranna's shoulder as the two wandered side-by-side among the fields.
"Where do you want to walk?" Giuranna asked.
The 10-year-old didn't want to walk anywhere. With a toothy grin, he led Giuranna on a series of sprints across the ranch, finally letting the Marine pass so he could tackle him from behind.
Michael Wert, 10, and mentor Kristopher Giuranna practiced during a football clinic at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington on Saturday. 'I think Michael connected to Kris because he's a Marine and his father was a Marine,' says Michael's mom, Debbie Wert.
Everywhere he went on the ranch, kids flowed to Giuranna out of the chaos – the girls greeting him with hugs, the boys with wrestling holds. A TAPS mentor for a little over a year, he sometimes forgot at which event he had met a child, remembering them better by how they lost a parent.
Throughout the four-day program, children occasionally broke down, and a mentor would take them aside to talk through their feelings.
On Friday, as he and Kenneth stood in line for a game at the Dallas Convention Center, the boy randomly asked: "Did I ever tell you how my dad died?"
Giuranna spent Saturday afternoon tossing a football with Michael Wert, a 10-year-old in dirty white socks who ran tirelessly up and down the Cowboys Stadium field.
Three springs ago, Michael had watched his father swim into the ocean to rescue two children caught in a rip current. He saved them, but never made it back to shore himself.
"Now he's in a house full of women," said Michael's mother, Debbie Wert. "He had other people showing him how to stand up to go to the bathroom and not sit down."
TAPS helped her family pick up the pieces. Through the program's regional "grief camps," her three children learned to talk about their loss with mentors, whom they now count among their friends.
Michael met Giuranna at an event in Ohio last year. They had adjoining hotel suites and became friends by playing pranks – knocking on each other's doors and fleeing.
"I think Michael connected to Kris because he's a Marine and his father was a Marine," Wert said. In fact, most of the TAPS mentors in Dallas were either soldiers or had family in the military.
Giuranna has completed a tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq. He returned home in 2008 and remains on active duty. He works a day job at the Pentagon and alternates his weekends between TAPS events and visitations with his 3-year-old daughter.
The kids he met at the services for fallen friends moved Giuranna to join TAPS, but his own child makes him reluctant to return to the battlefield.
"I think about her a lot," he said, watching Kenneth and Michael play inside an inflatable castle on Friday. "And that's one reason I hesitate to go back over."
"You get to do great things, but..." he looked across the convention center, at the sea of tiny faces.
"There's definitely a cost."