Bonnie Carroll understands the cost of war as intimately as anyone in America – not the dollars and cents cost but the price paid by families for generations after warriors fall in battle. A few years after losing her husband in a military aircraft mishap in Alaska, Carroll turned her grief into action and founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, better known as "TAPS."
"Twenty years ago there was no organization for those grieving the loss of a loved one who died while serving in the armed forces," Carroll said while overseeing a recent TAPS event for nearly 50 surviving children held at the U.S. Naval Academy. "We are the families helping the families heal."
"Grief isn't a mental illness," she continued. "It isn't something you can take a pill for or put a splint over. Grief is a wound of the heart, and there's no one better to provide that healing than those who've walked this journey and are now trained to help the bereaved. And as they help others they continue their own process of healing."
Carroll pointed out that TAPS has strong relationships and formalized memorandums of understanding with all of the Pentagon's branches of services but that the mission of assisting survivors is best done by a private organization and not a government bureaucracy.
"We have protocols in place so that when a family member dies, the families are told that TAPS exists," Carroll said. "They will not be alone."
That wasn't always the case. For the first three years of TAPS' existence the organization had trouble breaking through the mazes that surrounded the entrenched (and generally ineffective) agencies charged with dealing with the families of the fallen.
That changed dramatically in 1997 after the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili, attended a TAPS gathering. "Hearing the stories and seeing the healing taking place was a game changer for him," Carroll said. "When he got up to speak he said, 'I really didn't get it until I was here tonight. I didn't realize how powerful this organization is.'"
And most importantly with respect to DoD's responsibilities, the general said, "We can't do for you what you must do for each other."
Shalikashvilli went on to speak about the loss of his first wife 25 years earlier, which caused his second wife to lean over to Carroll and remark, "He's never talked about this in public before."
"In a room where he felt so safe, where he felt like he was in a place where you could share without judgment, he opened up," Carroll said. "He got it."
Shalikashvili went to the Joint Chiefs the following week and directed every branch of the service to connect with TAPS.
"We walk alongside the casualty officers," Carroll said. "When they knock on the door, when they brief families on the benefits, they let the families know that there will always be comfort and care for them."
The utility of TAPS was made evident on 9-11 when they moved into the space in the Sheraton across from the Pentagon where the FBI had been gathering forensic evidence. "As hope faded of finding remains, TAPS very quietly moved in," Carroll said. "We were there for six weeks with peers to provide support for the families."
On the day the family support center closed – all the remains that could be identified had been so, and some families would be going home without resolution – the general in charge said, "We are headed into war and don't know what lies ahead." He pointed to the TAPS staffers dressed in red shirts along the conference room's back wall. "For those in the room who have lost loved ones, the red shirts will be there forever."
"It was a wonderful hand off," Carroll said. "Many of those families are still with us today."
With a small percentage of Americans actually associated directly with the military, TAPS' role has also been to educate a disengaged public. Carroll told an anecdote about a young boy who refused to wear anything to elementary school but the jeans he was given by his older brother – a soldier who was killed in combat shortly thereafter. The boy's teacher sent a note home telling the mother that he would be sent home if he didn't wear something besides those jeans. The mother was emotionally upset and unsure how to react, so she reached out to TAPS for advice.
"We contacted the school's principal and suggested he help us educate the teacher on how to better deal with the child's situation," Carroll said. "We also recommended the teacher allow the boy to do a 'show and tell' to the class about his brother and his dedication and sacrifice." The school took the TAPS staff advice and the situation improved for all parties – civilians and survivors – after that.
TAPS has a core staff of 77 people running seminars, a national help line, doing case work, and facilitating "Good Grief" camps (the organization's signature offering). Ninety-two percent of the full-time staff are survivors of fallen warriors. The staff is supplemented by more than 50,000 volunteers nationwide.
On this day at the Naval Academy, surviving children team up with midshipmen mentors and do team building exercises in Halsey Fieldhouse and then break into smaller groups for discussions about loss and healing.
"One of my good friends lost her brother in Afghanistan," Midshipman 4th Class Kyle McCullough, a member of the Midshipmen Action Group, said. "She told me about TAPS and how they helped her through a rough time with her family. When I heard [TAPS] was coming to the Naval Academy I jumped on the opportunity to come out and volunteer."
For more information on the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors go to taps.org or call the toll-free TAPS resource and information helpline at 800-959-TAPS (8277).