Lauren Gibbons, 15

Army Chief Warrant Officer Thomas J. Gibbons, 31

Died Jan. 30, 2003

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Lauren Gibbons already knew some of the girls at this sunny horse paddock in Northern Virginia. She’d met Angelina at a previous Gold Star Teen Adventures camp in Florida. She’d hung out with Shaina at a Snowball Express camp in Texas. Gibbons may be new to horses, but she is an old hand at grief camps.

A couple of times a year since her dad was killed in 2003, Lauren, 15, has come to gatherings like this, meet-ups of kids who have lost parents in military service: A Soldier’s Child, Project Gratitude, T.A.P.S. At each event, she spends time with others who know the sadness, the anger — even the embarrassment — that comes with well-meant expressions of sympathy.

“Sometimes it just made me feel different,” Lauren said. “Whenever there was a father-daughter dance or breakfast, I would have to find a neighbor or an uncle to go with me.”

She was 3 when Chief Warrant Officer Thomas J. Gibbons’s helicopter went down near Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Her sister Emily was an infant.

Lauren’s memories of her dad are built from the stories of others. “He was very protective of his family,” she offered. “He didn’t like other people to hold me that much. He wanted to do the holding. That’s what my mom says.”

She keeps photos of him hanging by her bed in Clarksville, Tenn. Her favorite: Dad helping toddler Lauren stuff a Build-A-Bear. He taped a message on the bear’s recorder: “Lauren, I love you.” Then his audible kiss.

“It stopped working a few years ago,” she said.

Left: Lauren Gibbons and her dad, Thomas J. Gibbons, making a Build-A-Bear. Center: Lauren and her dad on a snowy day. Right: Lauren and her little sister Emily at their dad's grave. (Family photos)

There was no need to explain the loss of a recording — or a father — to the girls in this pasture along the Blue Ridge. They have all lived it, the eight daughters between 8 and 17 who now surrounded two retired racehorses named Clayton and Gabriel. They petted and patted. Lauren seemed mesmerized by Clayton’s bottomless brown eyes. Even though she’d been horse-crazy since she was 4, she’d never ridden.

“That’s what I like about GSTA,” she said. “You do stuff.”

Gold Star Teen Adventures is a hard-core sub-genre in the universe of grief camps. Some offer special access to amusement parks, concerts and sporting events. Some feature hours of circle time with counselors. Gold Star, founded by a Green Beret who lost a leg in Iraq, is open exclusively to the children of Special Forces operatives who were killed in the line of duty. They don’t coddle; they push.

“At the last of one these, I ate a worm,” said one teen. “We ate roadkill. We cleaned a raccoon.”

There was no bug eating at the Boulder Crest Retreat in Bluemont, Va. But the girls did get intimate with a little horse poop.

“It’s grass going in, and grass coming out, that’s all it is,” said Suzi Landolphi, the horse handler, who gave each girl a chance to experience a semi-dried ball of manure as more pastoral than putrid.

“Not happening,” said one, stepping back. But Lauren sniffed with a not-so-sure-about-this expression. She tilted her head and shrugged.

“I think my dad would be proud of me,” she said. Proud of the tall blond teenager she’s become, of the 10th grade soccer and lacrosse player. But maybe especially proud of the kid not afraid to get dirty, the girl who gained her open-water scuba certification last year at a Gold Star camp in Key Largo, Fla.

“Sometimes all the talking can be a little overwhelming.”

More than a decade after her dad’s death, Lauren has grown out of the stress balls, the bears with a father’s photo for a face, the group sessions on loss. “Sometimes all the talking can be a little overwhelming.”

But if she needs the camps less, she enjoys them more for the friends she sees there, the cohort of the left behind. The horse weekend, which included late-night dancing in the cabins and a long trail ride, connected her to her father just by making her happy.

“You begin to feel like you don’t have to think about it so much,” she said, “that I can miss my dad and still go on to live my life.”

Faces of the Fallen

Find out more about the service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.