Grief is a powerful emotion. Left unexpressed, it can consume one’s life. However, with the proper outlet to express it, grief can lead to healing and even hope.
In 1987, a young woman working in the West Wing of the Reagan White House was introduced to a dashing Army colonel. She was a 2nd lieutenant in the Air National Guard. He was a Vietnam combat veteran. They fell deeply in love. Within months they married.
In 1992, they were living in Alaska. He was a brigadier general, commanding officer of the Alaska Army National Guard and Deputy Commissioner of Military and Veterans Affairs for the state. On November 12, he died, killed with seven other soldiers in the crash of an Army C-12 King Air. She was devastated, numbed by the suddenness of his death. It was not until the following May - Memorial Day - that Bonnie Carroll really felt the depth of the loss, the consuming hollowness of the death of her Tom.
"We had five wonderfully happy years together," Bonnie said. "Then he was gone. That August, I got together with some of the other families who lost loved ones that day. We chartered a helicopter and visited the crash site. It was on the side of a mountain, and the remains of the plane were still there. For us, being at the site provided finality, and was very much a healing experience."
While that experience may have helped stanch some of the emotional bleeding, the ache of loss only grew deeper. Bonnie looked around for some group that might offer support.
There was none.
"No group was there for all those who lose a loved one serving in the Armed Forces to reach out to," she said during a 2003 interview with Veterans Advantage, while at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., for which she served as liaison to the White House. "Groups like Gold Star Wives and the Society of Military Widows do wonderful things such as lobbying to ensure benefits for military widows. But the closest I could find to an emotional support system for traumatic loss in the military was a group that aided the families of police officers who died in the line of duty."
To Fill a Void
All that winter, Bonnie Carroll thought about that void, thought about creating an organization to fill that void, talked to folks who could empathize with her pain: others who had lost a husband or a wife, brother or sister, son or daughter; officials in the Pentagon and the VA. In October 1994, she launched the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
T*A*P*S is a national, non-profit veterans service organization, a 501 (c)(3), whose mission is to be there for families, friends, and fellow service members - anyone who has been affected by the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces.
In its 17 years, T*A*P*S, which is supported entirely by donations and a battalion of volunteers, has been a lifeline to thousands of families. In most cases, these families are now led by young widows with young children. The families are referred to T*A*P*S by the casualty officer or commanding officer of the unit of the deceased service member, by the unit’s chaplain, by the funeral director or cemetery director. They can visit the group’s Web site, www.taps.org. They can read its literature, call its hotline at 800-959-TAPS. When they’re ready, they can reach out for help.
And T*A*P*S is there.
"We don’t duplicate the work of any other group," Bonnie said. "In fact, we have wonderful, complementary relationships with these other groups. The most important thing we do is offer peer support, which is the absolute foundation of T*A*P*S. We also link families to resources in their locality that understand traumatic loss and death. We’ve established close working relationships with dozens of government and non-government agencies that provide grief counseling and casework assistance. And we have volunteers available - and professionals on standby - for crisis intervention 24/7." All of these volunteers - T*A*P*S also employs a small staff - were themselves assisted by T*A*P*S when they suffered grievous loss. Their healing continues as they help others.
They all make a special effort with the children, many of whom are too young, at first, to appreciate fully the loss of a mother or a father. "Helping these kids deal with death absolutely has a profound effect on enabling them to understand and then cope with what happened."
Strength in Numbers
Nowadays, in the midst of its 16th holiday season for TAPS, the model has flourished. "Our peer mentor network has grown so much. We have hundreds of survivors trained," she said in a follow up interview this December. She also notes that the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has presented a silver lining that has allowed her organization to utilize many more trained counselors who themselves suffered loss over the years.
"This whole cycle of care, it keeps going."
"What we do is not therapy, but its therapeutic. It is the comfort of being with someone who truly understands. Our theme is 'Remember the love, celebrate the life and share the journey.'"
A typical day at TAPS involves 60-70 inbound calls a day, in addition to the outbound followup outreach her team places to survivors. Many of the calls, especially during this holiday season, are highly emotional and occur between midnight and 4 am, Carroll notes. Others who are through their first holiday season of loss, received special communications, including handwritten letters.
Horses to Politics
Bonnie Mersinger Carroll was raised in a rural community in the Hudson Valley of New York. "I was one of those little girls who grew up riding horses but then didn’t grow out of it," she said. She earned instructor certification in equine science, became a professional rider/trainer. She trained with members of the 1980 Olympic equestrian team; among the horses she broke was a filly named Genuine Risk, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby.
Bonnie realized, though, that riding "was a rather dangerous and not very lucrative way to make a living." She switched to politics, which was not so much a change in direction as a return to her roots: since she was 12, Bonnie had volunteered on Republican campaigns with her parents, who were very active in politics.
She also joined the Air National Guard, a decision no doubt influenced by her mother, who had been an aviator during the Second World War. Marjorie Mitchell Mersinger had told her daughter about the camaraderie she had felt in the Women’s Army Air Corps and the sense of mission that had fueled her resolve.
"Here I am, 25 years old, and I deeply felt I had a duty to serve my country. I knew that if I didn’t enlist now, I might never have the time or the chance to do it. And it’s been one of the most meaningful things I’ve had the privilege to do in my life. I’m so honored to stand beside others who defend the principles on which our country is founded.
"Absolutely the finest people I’ve met are through my military assignments," she said. "We share a brotherhood, a bond forged of a greater purpose. My fellow airmen motivate and inspire me because they are helping make this world a better, safer, freer place."
Moving to Washington, Bonnie parlayed hard work, good luck, and political connections to land a job as a staff assistant with the President’s Economic Policy Council. One day she was asked to draft a response for the President about a horse-related issue. Ronald Reagan was so taken with what she wrote that he had his chief of staff, Howard Baker, call this young woman. Soon, Bonnie was working in the West Wing, the executive assistant to the Cabinet Secretary.
It was there that she was introduced to Tom Carroll. Their love, and his death, changed her life.
"When you’re among others who have suffered a loss like yours, there’s an unspoken bond that wipes away so many layers that tend to separate us," she said. "These folks are my family. They’re young, vibrant, passionate men and women who help each other by helping others. Here in Washington, which can be a very superficial town, the depth of their commitment is just so refreshing and empowering and inspirational."
Bonnie Carroll, too, is refreshing and empowering and inspirational to others. Speaking at The Wall on Memorial Day several years ago, Bonnie moved many to tears with her words.
"My husband really was my hero," she said. "And if he were here today, his words to you would be simple. Life is rarely understandable and often unfair. We are all living on borrowed time, time borrowed from God. The material things in life are fleeting - memories and families and friendships are what remain."
In this, Bonnie Carroll is blessed. Today, she currently serves on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation, the Board of Directors of the Association of Death Education and Counseling, the Department of Defense (DOD) Military Family Readiness Council and she co-chairs the DOD Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide in the Armed Forces.
TAPS Helps Families in Time of Need
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is a non-profit Veterans Service Organization offering hope, healing, comfort and care to the thousands of people affected by the loss of a loved one in the armed forces.
TAPS is dedicated to serving all those suffering from the loss of a loved one who served in the military by offering the following services:
Peer support is available through a national survivor network. Family members and friends support one another in a safe and supportive environment to help each other heal.
Case workers help families locate important information they need and put them in touch with the right individuals after the loss of a loved one.
Crisis intervention is available through a network of trained crisis response professionals. They are on call around the clock to help survivors understand the grief and pain they are experiencing.
Grief counselors offer referrals to top bereavement counselors and support groups throughout the nation.
TAPS’ Annual National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors is held each year during Memorial Day weekend in Washington, DC. Click here for more details.
For more information about TAPS, please visit its web site at www.taps.org or call 1-800-959-TAPS.