Six-year-old J.R. Reed walked up to the sailor in the dress white uniform who stood towering over a room full of 30 excited children in a Crystal City hotel. In his hand, the boy clutched a photograph showing a smiling, handsome man.
"Who's that?" the sailor, Seaman Brennon Moore, asked gently, leaning over to look at the photo.
"My dad," J.R. said, proudly basking in the attention the sailor gave to the photograph.
J.R.'s father, an Army aviator named Capt. Joseph Reed, died three years ago in a helicopter crash during a training exercise in Arizona. He was 30. The loss of his father was something J.R. had in common with every other child in the room; all had lost a parent who had served in the military, some as recently as a few weeks ago.
At a table in the room covered with construction paper and colored markers, Taylor Nelson, 7, had drawn a picture showing her father, another soldier who died young. In it, he was smiling and singing to her: "I'll be there by the moon and the stars in the sky. I'll be there."
For these children, Memorial Day is not about picnics or weekends at the beach. It is a much more personal day of remembrance.
They, along with more than 100 adults, were gathered in Crystal City over the weekend for a national military survivor seminar sponsored by a Washington-based nonprofit group called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.
"It kind of hurts when I hear people saying, 'It's barbecue time,' or this or that," said Darla Reed, 32, J.R.'s mother. "That's not what it really is."
For some, the pain is very fresh. Among those attending was Montgomery County resident Jean Gibbs and two of her daughters, Allison and Megan. Her husband and their father, Army Chief Warrant Officer David Gibbs, was one of two crew members killed May 5 when an Apache helicopter preparing for the Kosovo mission crashed in Albania. Gibbs was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on May 20 at a private, family ceremony.
TAPS was founded six years ago by Bonnie Carroll, whose husband, Thomas, a general, was one of eight soldiers killed when an Army National Guard aircraft crashed in Alaska in 1992. "When something like that happens, you look for a support system," she said, "and I found out there wasn't any."
The group has a network of services for families, including caseworkers who serve as liaisons and a 24-hour hot line.
Several military installations, concerned about the possibility that the war in Kosovo could generate more American casualties, have contacted the group in recent weeks seeking tips on how to assist bereaved families, according to Carroll. "With things heating up, we should learn how to cope better," she said.
This year's theme for the annual military survivor seminar, the fifth, was "rebuilding shattered lives."
The children, ranging in age from 18 months to their late teens, attended a "kids camp" overseen by counselors in a hotel ballroom.
Wearing red T-shirts with the TAPS logo, the children sat on the floor in circles and, at the prompting of the counselors, shared stories about their fathers. They spoke of hunting and camping trips. One child told of how his father had gone off flying in a helicopter. "But it crashed, so he died," the boy said.
It's easier for the children to tell the stories to others who have lost parents in similar circumstances. "They don't have to explain so much," said Gina Alzate, a counselor.
"J.R. is starting to understand what death means," Darla Reed said. "I wanted him to see all these other children who're going through the same thing."
There have been diversions, including the visit by Moore and other members of a joint services honor guard. Standing erect in their dress uniforms, the service members showed the children the proper way to fold an American flag and fielded questions about everything from their hats to their haircuts. "You have to reach out to them," said Air Force Senior Airman Chris Houde. "They'll reach out to you."
While the children played and talked, the adults, the majority of them young widows, attended workshops. Some of the women talked about cliches they hear from well-meaning acquaintances: "You're young; you'll meet someone," or, "Things will get better soon."
"You want to talk to someone who's felt the same depth of pain you have," Reed said.
For some, attending the seminar meant overcoming a reluctance to group themselves as military widows.
"I didn't want to admit that this is me," said Karen Burris, 38, a McLean resident who is attending the seminar with her 6-year-old daughter, Allison. Her husband, Army Maj. Andrew Burris, a McLean native, was killed in a training accident in Florida two years ago.
TAPS has helped pull her through, she said. "I didn't know how I would survive, but we're all surviving," Burris said. "Here it's been about two years, and there were times I didn't think I could make it through a day."
The weekend has included visits to military sites around town, including the evening parade at the Marine Corps barracks in Southeast Washington and the Fort Myer stable, home to the horses that draw the funeral caissons at Arlington cemetery.
But for many, the most important part of the weekend has been the support of people who understand best. "I came here treading lightly, thinking, 'Where do I belong?' and, 'I don't want to cry,' " said Anne McCloud, an Alexandria resident whose husband, Air Force Lt. Gen. David McCloud, was killed in a plane crash last July. "And all of a sudden, it doesn't matter if I cry. I'm surrounded by people with a contagious desire to keep going."
CAPTION: Taylor Nelson, 7, holds a drawing of her father, Army soldier Michael Nelson, who died in 1997.