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Honoring the extraordinary legacy of Army Brigadier General Thomas Carroll

Jessica Manfre Avatar

Army Brigadier General Thomas (Tom) C. Carroll was a life-long Alaskan, proud soldier and described as an “old soul” by his wife, Bonnie. It’s no wonder, given his beginnings. 

Tom’s father, Thomas P. Carroll, was stationed in Europe during World War II when he met his mother, Kathleen, in Northern Ireland. As the tale goes, his father swept her off her feet. They were married December 13, 1942, in Armagh, North Ireland.

His father was later cited for bravery in action against a German machine gun platoon during the invasion on Normandy Beach. His company came under heavy fire and stood up and wiped out the machine gun platoon. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor, though it was downgraded to a Silver Star.

Tom Carroll in uniform

The couple moved to Anchorage after the war ended and he was discharged from the Army. He joined the Alaska National Guard just as the new state was forming, quickly moving up the ranks to be chosen to lead as the Adjutant General of the Alaska National Guard in 1957. Just seven years later, he’d lose his life in a plane crash leaving behind his wife and their four sons. 

“In an instant, Tom went from living his life at the state capitol with a two-star general father to being one of four boys raised by a widowed mother. It was out of that experience that three of those boys, including Tom, went and enlisted into the Army,” his wife Bonnie Carroll shared. “Tom went to Vietnam and served in combat with the 25th Infantry Division, the Wolfhounds, he was always very proud of that and wore the tropic lightning patch his entire career because of that combat service. Tom went into the Vietnam War as an enlisted soldier and came out of it as an officer from a battlefield commission.” 

After 10 years of active duty service in the Army Tom went back to Alaska and moved into the National Guard. He was eventually the assistant adjutant general and the Deputy Commissioner of Military and Veterans Affairs for the state of Alaska. 

When Tom met Bonnie, it was just as romantic as his father’s story, but with whales.

Bonnie and Tom sit on the couch on their wedding day
Photo courtesy of Bonnie Carroll

Bonnie shared, “I was working in the West Wing of the White House for President Ronald Reagan way back in the day and this was coming up on the election for president. There was this concern raised up in Alaska where three gray whales were trapped in the ice and it captured the world’s attention. It went viral before that was a thing. I think people were tired of hearing about the election but the world was fixated on this story.”

At the time, Tom was commanding the operation in Barrow.

“He was such a global thinker, always trying to see how we can just transform humanity in everything. He saw this as an opportunity to bring together these four very different groups that would never otherwise talk to each other,” she explained. “The military, the Alaska Natives, the Greenpeace folks who are always protesting everything everybody is doing and the oil companies. They all came together around this whale rescue.”

President Reagan came by Bonnie’s office one night and mentioned that he saw the story on TV about the coordinated whale rescue. 

“Knowing I was in the Air National Guard myself he asked me to call someone to see how the government could serve and help in some way. That was his style,” she remembered. 

Bonnie made some calls and eventually, her phone rang around 2:00 am with Tom on the other end. That was their first conversation and they were together from that moment on.

Tom and Bonnie in front of a house with lights
Photo courtesy of Bonnie Carroll

“During our conversations, he told me they were getting to the point where they had done everything they could and needed President Reagan to call President Gorbachev and ask him to bring in a Soviet icebreaker,” Bonnie added. “I let him know that their embassy was most assuredly listening to the phone call and if they could help we’d hear about it. Two hours later, I got a message in the White House Situation Room from the Soviet embassy that the icebreaker would engage in the rescue. I still have that message.”

Tom and Bonnie pose for a photo in a crowd
Photo courtesy of Bonnie Carroll

Before the Cold War ended on a Blackhawk helicopter, Tom landed on that Soviet icebreaker and put the American flag next to theirs as they sailed into the ice to save the whales. 

Operation Breakthrough was their beginning. 

A whale breaks through the ice
Operation Breakthrough (NOAA file image)

“That’s just the way Tom thought about things, meaning how could we elevate conversation to more transformative change? He saw the military in that way and was always looking for ways to strengthen the force,” she said. “He was a wonderful leader but so incredibly personal at the same time.”

After their conversations, they were quickly married and Bonnie found herself out of the White House and living in Alaska. She described them as “inseparable.” 

Tom holds Bonnie outside
Photo courtesy of Bonnie Carroll

“My civilian job was in the Alaska Department of Law, where I was supporting victims of violent crime, homicide and survivors. I got involved with law enforcement,” Bonnie shared. 

In 1990, Tom received an induction into the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame at what was then Fort Benning, Ga. Two years later, President George Bush nominated him to be a general officer and it was congressionally approved. Just months later on November 12, 1992, Tom was on a National Guard plane with seven others when it crashed – killing everyone on board. 

“I thought for a moment, I had learned so much from Tom on leadership and that I would be able to help our families. That little fantasy lasted about 30 seconds and then life just stopped,” Bonnie recalled. “Everything changed in my life, our future was gone but now I had to think about my family and our children. It was overwhelming.”

The pain was indescribable, she added. One day someone asked if it hurt so deeply that she wished she’d never met Tom to prevent feeling it. Bonnie said it was a wake up call for her. 

“I wouldn’t trade a moment but I just wanted more moments. I’m grateful for the time we had and it had me thinking about how miraculous it was that we ever met and built this life all because of an unpredictable whale rescue,” she said. 

As she looked around for support, Bonnie quickly realized there was nothing for military survivors. Though she tried to go to a support group for family members of fallen police officers, it wasn’t the same. 

Photo courtesy of Bonnie Carroll

“I had certain access because of my work at the White House and because Tom was a general officer at the time of his death. Next thing I knew I was back in D.C. meeting with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of Defense having deep conversations about what existed in the government for us survivors,” Bonnie explained. “Within the private sector there were American Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives, which I immediately joined. I went to their conventions and worked side by side with them to see what actually existed and where the gaps were.”

A year after Tom’s death, she met with the other widows from the plane crash. The women talked for half a day following a Memorial Day event. Bonnie said she walked away feeling healed and called those conversations the “secret sauce.” After two years of work, she came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a peer-based emotional support organization for military survivors of any kind. 

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors was born. 

The welcome gate to Camp Carroll
Camp Carroll/public domain

“General Dempsey, who’s on our board of directors is so fond of saying that the government does a brilliant job of rendering final honors, providing a final resting place and administering benefits to those who are eligible. But that really is where the government engagement stops,” Bonnie explained. “Then it’s incumbent upon TAPS to take the family, open the aperture and provide support to all who are grieving in a very genuine and authentic way. We have for the past 30 years.”

When asked what she thought Tom would say if he could see what she built in the ashes of his extraordinary legacy, Bonnie smiled. 

“Honestly, I talk to him all the time about it. It’s exactly the kind of thing he would do if he was here. Tom always says when we take care of our troops and engage their families, we elevate the fighting force of the military,” she said. “He was a wonderful inspiration to my life and always will be.”

You can learn more about TAPS by clicking here. If you want to see Bonnie and Tom’s romance play out on the big screen, you can watch Big Miracle

Jessica Manfre is an author and freelance writer for multiple publications. She is a licensed social worker, earning her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Central Florida in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Northwestern State University. Jessica is the co-founder and CFO of Inspire Up, a 501c3 nonprofit promoting global generosity and kindness through education, empowerment and community building. She is the spouse of an active duty Coast Guardsman and mother of two. When she isn't working, you can find her reading a good book and drinking too much coffee.