The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
May/June 2005
FEATURE
 
 

TAPS: Coping Skills For Widows
 

BY KAREN SPEARS ZACHARIAS

Bonnie Carroll is an evangelist of sorts. A woman who, having been struck by death, rose up and claimed a new life for herself—a life committed to helping other families cope with the losses of those who died while serving in the nation’s armed forces. Bonnie Carroll is founder and chair of the nonprofit support group Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

Carroll was 35 when her husband, Tom, was killed with seven others in an Army National Guard plane crash in Alaska in November 1992. She had an extensive background in dealing with crisis situations. Carroll had served as an executive assistant for Cabinet Affairs in the West Wing of the White House and in reserve capacity on the Air National Guard Critical Incident and Stress Debriefing Team. At the time of her husband’s death, she was working in Alaska with the Department of Law Enforcement helping families victimized by homicide.

Despite her professional training and cool demeanor, Carroll found herself reeling from her husband’s death.

“Tom had been in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division, which had one of the highest casualty rates during that war. He spent a good deal of his active-duty career in combat and survived all that. He was healthy. He was fit. He had a good career. He had been promoted to Brigadier General by the time he was 44. We had big plans,” she said. “For him to die was such a shock.”

Just getting out of bed became a hurdle. “There was a brief moment where I thought, ‘I can handle it. I know how to deal with this.’ But it was brief. My world stopped. It was a struggle just to get up in the morning. I think we have a hard time comprehending that someone we love can be gone so quickly,” Carroll said.

She spent six months trying to cope with the tremendous loss. Then, on Memorial Day 1993, six months after her husband’s death, Carroll gathered with other women who’d lost husbands in the same crash. “That was the first time we’d run into each other since the incident happened,” she recalled. “Afterwards, we went out for coffee. We cried and laughed, shared our feelings and our struggles. It was so amazing, so healing, to have your own experiences normalized and validated.”

That coffee shop experience convinced Carroll to take action. Although psychologists and psychiatrists advise against making big changes during the first year following a loved one’s death, one of the first things many military families must do is move from base housing into the civilian community. Moreover, military survivors have to change their identification cards as a result of death.

“There are so many things that make death in the military unique,” she said. “And it’s not so much about the circumstances of their death as it is about the life they lived in service to our country. My role as an Army wife stopped on the day my husband died. It was another loss I felt and mourned.”

Before her husband’s death, Carroll said she was very much involved in the Army family. Once he was gone, people still invited her to take part in the activities of the military community, but it was in a different context.

“I became an ‘unmarried widow.’” she said. “It is a matter of someone saying you are no longer who you were—you are now a ‘dependent of the deceased.’ That’s a profound statement.”

Relying on her prior professional experience, Carroll modeled TAPS after support groups for cancer survivors and victim-assistance programs. She spoke to other military widows’ organizations and the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to make sure services weren’t duplicated. She fine-tuned programs to provide peer support; long-term casework assistance; and an emotional buffer to help families obtain hard-to-get information from government agencies.

“People can call TAPS at 2 a.m. and through hours of tearful sharing, share memories of their loved ones and identify needs they have at that moment,” Carroll said. “The goal is to give people the support when and where they need it.”

TAPS is working with families affected by today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When surviving spouses lament that they don’t know how they’ll survive, Carroll understands the sentiment. There was a time when she wondered if she would be able to go on after her husband’s death. And there isn’t a day that passes that she doesn’t miss him. But Carroll said that she has found their love still enriches her life.

For more information about TAPS, go to www.taps.org or write to: 1621 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 300,Washington, DC 20009, Phone: 202-588-TAPS (8277) or Hotline: 800-959-TAPS.

   

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