'You are not alone': Families of fallen military members gather in downtown Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After 19 years of military service, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Wieczorek was on the brink of retirement.

His wife Stacey says he was fishing before reporting for his shift in September 2012 when his heart gave out. Their kids were 4 and 8 years old.


“They were getting ready for school. I had to tell them their daddy wasn’t coming home,” she said. “You just shut down. You’re in survival mode. You’re trying to get through every day.”

While her world slowed to a crawl, her responsibilities didn’t.

“Within 24 hours of my husband’s passing, (I had) a whole list of things I had to do, funeral arrangements, financial decisions,” she said. “Our very lives as we knew it just crumbled, and you don’t know where to turn.”

That’s when she says she learned of an organization that would become a lifeline for her and her kids. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, known as TAPS, helped her navigate life as a widow. Seven and a half years later, she says she doesn't know where her family would be without it.

The Wieczoreks joined families of 160 military men and women in downtown Jacksonville this weekend.

Each of the servicemen and women died suddenly, in the line of duty or in their personal lives. But Wieczorek says the focus wasn't on their deaths.

TAPS’ mentors, made up of active-duty  service members and military veterans, used fun activities to teach children healthy ways to cope.

In nearby rooms, families came together to honor the military members and help each other through their grief.

For the sister of U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Raymond Alvarez, it was the first time she was able to open up about him since his fatal motorcycle crash four years ago. He was 24 years old.

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“It’s a lot to kind of take on, and you don’t really know what to do or who to talk to,” his sister, Raquel Alvarez, said. “I was scared coming into this but after sitting with everyone else … we let go of a lot today, so it’s a good first step, but it’s not the last step either.”

TAPS says all of the families were from the Southeast, with 60 families from the Jacksonville area. All of them with the same goal: honoring those who served and embracing their families.

“You can do this, you are not alone. You can do this,” Stacey Wieczorek said. “Whether it’s a year, five years, 10 years. You can do this, you can get through this.”

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