Nature brought Bonnie and Tom Carroll together. Tragedy ripped them apart, and grief became Bonnie’s new companion. In the decades since her loss, Bonnie Carroll has become one of the most influential people in the military community. Her work is born from grief, but her grief originated in love – and it is with that love that she is able to impact thousands of people around the world.
It was President Ronald Reagan who ordered Bonnie Carroll to make the call that changed her life.
She was a respected staffer in the West Wing, serving as a presidential liaison, when three whales became trapped by Alaskan ice. The story flew around the world in a 1988 version of the viral news.
People were glued to their TV or radio, and newspaper headlines were obsessed with the plight of the whales. The story was made more interesting because of the conflict between Greenpeace and the Eskimos and oil companies.
“Call someone and find out how we can help,” the president instructed her. Bonnie made the call. Brigadier General Tom Carroll answered, and their love story began.
It was a beautiful story; the Commander of the Alaska Army National Guard was as smitten with the stunning blonde officer in the Air National Guard who also happened to work directly for his Commander in Chief. The whales were rescued. Divided factions worked together, and Bonnie became Mrs. Carroll. The story was eventually portrayed in the movie Big Miracle, starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski.
“It was amazing, unconditional love. He taught me everything….” Bonnie’s voice lifts up and her voice bursts through her wide smile as she speaks about her husband. Then her voice trails off. Her smile fades, and she comes back to the present.
“Suddenly I could not breathe and life was forever changed profoundly,” she says, subdued for a moment.
An aircraft accident in the Alaskan mountains transformed 8 wives into widows and robbed the Alaska National Guard of several of its leaders. Bonnie was one of the 8 new windows, and the woman who excelled at leading others through past tragedies, whose advice the president of the United States leaned on, fell into the painful clutches of grief.
“I can’t go on. I can’t live like this. I just can’t go on without him. He was my everything – my whole world – and it’s gone,” she broke down to a trusted friend.
It was in the sharpest moments of her pain, when the shock had receded, the ceremonies had ended, and the world around her had resumed its pace, that Bonnie heard the words that served as a, “slap in the face,” and served as a catalyst for her to turn the tables on her own tragedy, so she could begin writing a new story of triumph.
“Knowing how much this hurts, and how painful it is,” she was asked, “would you rather have never met?”
Bonnie instantly reacted to the question, every neuron in her body instinctively snapping from the flight back into fight mode as she defended her memories and her love, and talked about Tom until they were both exhausted. She had no regrets, she explained. She just wanted more time. It wasn’t enough.
It would never be enough, she realized. If she’d had 90 years with Tom she would still have wanted more.
The second moment of synchronicity came next, “Yes!” she exclaimed. Yes, he had enriched her life.
“Well then,” came the question, “What are you going to do with all of those riches?”
The words served as an epiphany for Bonnie, allowing her to flip things around and view grief from another standpoint. She’d endured and overcome the loss of her mother when she was still a teenage girl. Now, those words reached something within Bonnie’s soul that filled her with the certainty that she would find her way through this, too.
Bonnie Carroll began drawing upon her professional experience and her personal insight to forge her way through grief’s dark shadow.
She knew people. She knew a lot of people. She was on the boards of more than one organization that served people navigating grief. Surely, she thought, she would find support there. She’d also been a leader on more than one occasion when tragedy befell her National Guard unit. Surely those skills and that experience would be enough for her to lead herself and her family through this.
They were logical thoughts. They made perfect sense. But they didn’t ring true in reality. The groups she knew were for different kinds of losses under different circumstances. “They weren’t my people. They weren’t speaking my language,’ she remembers. The loss was too personal, too closely entwined with her own heart, for her to lead anyone else through at that moment in time.
Two years after her loss, Bonnie reconnected with the other women whose husbands died with hers. The connection they had was magic, she recalls. The honesty and the hope and the healing were all organically present. They all understood each other more than anyone else in their worlds could, and Bonnie realized she’d found a powerful weapon against a debilitating adversary.
Grief can destroy the lives of those left behind. It can end lives if left unchecked. Bonnie understands this on an elite professional level and intensely deep personal level. This knowledge of grief and her insight into how to overpower it, coupled with her strong will and compassionate heart for others, compelled Bonnie to harness the power of her own pain and focus it on helping thousands of people across the world.
Bonnie Carroll is the founder of TAPS.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is the country’s premier source of support and resources for people grieving the loss of anyone who has ever served in the United States Military.
While there are numerous organizations in place for families of fallen service members, there are several aspects that set TAPS apart from them. Eligibility requirements may be among the most notable differences.
There are organizations for survivors of Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, Purple Heart recipients and those killed in combat. There are organizations for members who died on active duty, and for their moms, their widows, or their children.
There are organizations who only recently opened up services to survivors of service members who died of suicide, and there are organizations that have other criteria to determine eligibility. Though they are entitled to reach out to whomever they feel moved to, it can be hurtful and limiting to grief-stricken survivors, to be excluded from the support of non-profits reaching out to others. TAPS has none of those eligibility restrictions.
Anyone who is mourning the loss of anyone who has ever worn the uniform of this country is eligible for support from TAPS.
Next, there are four core tenets of TAPS that fill a gap Bonnie recognized back when she created her organization: Peer-based emotional support, casework assistance, a 24-hour helpline, and connecting survivors to local resources are all offered through TAPS.
Each of those four tenets merits notice. They all provide a value that has literally marked the difference between life and death for many survivors, and between pain and hope for others.
“We are America’s family.”
Bonnie beams as she talks about the 80,000 survivors now actively engaged in TAPS, and shares stories of the healing felt by the 10,000 active duty service members who act as mentors to grieving children and the 20,000 peer mentors who have navigated their own grief, and now help others. She’s even extended TAPS’ reach into 25 countries – including Iraq and Afghanistan and has moving stories of the profound moments when human connections superseded cultural differences.
“It’s a force multiplier,” she explains, “in helping others you continue your own healing.”
Bonnie Carroll has much to be proud of.
She served for 30 years in the United States military. She has worked closely with two presidents, is very familiar with life at the Pentagon, has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is a frequent guest on national news shows, and is a sought-after speaker and adviser. But nothing, it seems, makes her prouder than being the matriarch of the family no one wants to be a member of, yet is profoundly grateful for.
It was a difficult journey and can still pose challenges, but Bonnie never doubted her path.
She encourages others to draw upon their own drive to follow what they are called to do, too, and offers these questions to anyone wondering if they should take that leap…
“Are you making a difference in someone’s life. Are you able to have a positive impact on the world. Is someone breathing easier because of what you do?”
For Bonnie it’s simple – if you can answer ‘yes” to these questions, that is the best of humanity. “It’s why we all exist.”