This Military Widow Is Tapping Into Love To Help Other Families Turn Grief Into Hope
"We’re helping people shift from the pain of the loss to the gratitude of the life their loved one lived."
When Bonnie Carroll lost her husband, a brigadier general in the National Guard, she was surprised to learn the armed forces didn’t offer formal emotional support groups. She thought that no one should go through this alone. So, she started her own military support group called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Keep reading to learn the touching backstory behind TAP, and how the organization has helped military families for close to 30 years.
On a cold day in November of 1992, Bonnie’s husband, Tom, a brigadier general in the Alaska National Guard, and seven other Guardsmen, were on a routine flight when their plane crashed in the Alaska mountains, killing all aboard. Bonnie was a major in the Air Force Reserve when she met Tom in 1988, while they were both part of a rescue effort to free three whales that had become trapped under Alaskan ice. From the moment they met, they felt an undeniable connection. Within months, they married and had a blissful life together that included two foster teenagers, horses, and dogs. They packed every moment with love and joy.
But now, Tom was gone.
The depth of this loss hit Bonnie hard. When she’d lost Tom, she’d lost a part of herself. Feeling overwhelmed and alone, Bonnie sought out emotional support services from the military and was frustrated to discover there weren’t any.
Over the next two years, as Bonnie worked through her grief, she discussed the absence of bereavement services with the Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense leaders, but was making little headway.
Bonnie’s belief that grief shouldn’t be a process that one deals with alone helped her realize it was time to stop talking and take action.
Creating a Community of Caring Individuals
In 1994, Bonnie founded a nonprofit to help other military families facing the same devastating loss named TAPS, which is also the well-known military bugle call. TAPS provides a national network of peer-based emotional support with online and in-person groups. The organization also offers grief camps for children, a 24/7 hotline, women’s empowerment programs, sporting events for families, and travel expeditions for survivors.
Ben Voelke, who at the age of 6, lost his Army father, Paul, thanks the TAPS programs for helping him through such a profound loss during childhood. “Just having kids around me who I knew were going through the same experience was — and is — a very comforting thing,” Ben, now 17 and still active in TAPS, says. “I don’t feel like a kid whose father passed away in the military; I just feel like a regular kid when I’m there.”
Ben’s mother, Traci, remembers feeling a loss of not just her husband, who died in Afghanistan in 2012, but also a loss of community in the military. The shake-up was profound. TAPS, she says, filled that hole for her. She is especially grateful for a life-changing TAPS trip to Peru, where she and other widows climbed the Inca citadel Machu Picchu.
“Climbing the mountain was like stairs to Heaven,” Traci says. “It’s not about getting to the top but just taking the next step.” That feeling of empowerment is shared by all the members of the TAPS family. As one widow joyfully reported on the organization’s website, “They’ve helped me see that I am capable of living a healthy, happy, meaning full life.”
Bonnie beams reading such messages, knowing she’s providing hope and healing.
How TAPS Continues To Help Military Families
Over the past nearly 30 years, the reach of TAPS has been wide and deep. The organization has cared for some 100,000 families who have lost a loved one. In 2015, Bonnie was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work, an honor she accepted with great pride. “If we can make a difference and make it a little easier on others, I think that’s the most important thing we can do,” she says. “We create a safe space…with instant friendships. People come in as strangers and leave as forever best friends.”
While what bonds all TAPS participants together is their grief, Bonnie emphasizes, grief is really about love. “We only grieve because we love; grief really is more about the love and the life lived,” she says. “We are tapping into that foundation of love. We’re helping people shift from the pain of the loss to the gratitude of the life their loved one lived.”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.