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Q&A: Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Bonnie Carroll

Bonnie Carroll calls the relationship between the NBA and her military service organization, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, "magical."

Bonnie Carroll, President and Founder of TAPS, joins the 2016 U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball Team at an partnership announcement event in New York City in June 2016.

Bonnie Carroll is a 31-year military veteran and the president and founder of TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), the leading national Military Service Organization providing compassionate care, casework assistance, and 24/7/365 emotional support for all those impacted by the death of a military loved one. Carroll is a 2015 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Carroll spoke with’s Brian Martin to discuss her military service, what inspired the formation of TAPS and the partnership between the NBA and TAPS to help support families who have lost a loved one.

Brian Martin:
With Veterans Day approaching, can you discuss your decision to pursue a career in military service?

Bonnie Carroll: I would love to. My mother had served in World War II as a pilot, an aviator. Hearing her stories from that time of how much it meant to her to serve her country, especially during war time, really just had such an impact on me.

She died when I was a teenager, so I didn’t really get to know her as an adult, but I cherish those stories and those memories and the few mementos that I have of her service. And that really inspired me to serve my country; she instilled in me that it was really every citizen’s duty living in this wonderful free country to serve in whatever way they are able.

So, I joined the Air National Guard, went off to basic training and then technical school and wound up spending a total of a little over 30 years in the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, including some periods where I was full time with the Air Guard.

Martin: When you look back at your service way, when you think about what you gave and what you got back, what was the biggest thing you took away from the experience?

Carroll: Well, several things, the opportunity to really serve my country, to understand that the freedoms we enjoy in this country are fought for and hard won, and we can’t take them for granted. That the American flag means something; I’ll never forget our Basic Training graduation ceremony, hearing the National Anthem and saluting the American flag. It felt different, it made me feel more of a citizen and more engaged in our country.

Of course, I love the camaraderie of the military. Some of the best friends that I’ve had throughout my life have been ones that I’ve met through that connection with the military. It was because of my service in the Air Guard, actually, that I wound up meeting my husband. Back in the late eighties, I was the only person working right there in the West Wing who was also a serving reservist. When a situation occurred surrounding gray whales that were trapped in the ice, President Reagan came to me and he said, “Since you’re in the Guard, and this is a National Guard led operation, could you take the lead and find out what’s happening and how we can help?” And the commander of the operation in Alaska was Colonel Tom Carroll. The rest is history, as they say.

Martin: The whale rescue also inspired a movie. (The 2012 film Big Miracle covers Operation Breakthrough, the 1988 international effort to rescue gray whales trapped in ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, and includes characters based on Bonnie and her husband.) What was it like to see yourself being portrayed in the film and see a part of your life story told on the big screen?

Caroll: The rescue of those whales, back in the late eighties was such a wonderful example of groups coming together from polar opposite sides of every spectrum you could imagine; you had the Alaskan natives, the Federal government, oil companies, Greenpeace, the military, and then the Soviets all coming together for a common goal and really having the entire world cheering them on.

My husband was such a global thinker and really did look at this operation as a way to not just rescue whales, but a fantastic opportunity to unite all of these groups. And he worked really hard at that throughout the operation.

Martin: I wanted to talk to you about the inspiration and the formation of TAPS and how you turned a personal tragedy into a mission to help others. I know part of this story, but I would love to let our readers know the background of the story.

Carroll: Well, very tragically, my husband, at the time he was the Commanding General of the Alaska Army National Guard, was killed, along with seven other soldiers, in an army plane crash in Alaska.

At that time, I was in the Air National Guard and in my civilian job was actually working with organizations that helped those grieving traumatic loss, very ironically. Even in my National Guard service, I was working with a group doing a critical incident stress management following mass casualties. So, I’d had this training and I had this moment after hearing of my husband’s death, this immediate thought of, “Oh my gosh, I’ve had all this training. I’ll be able to help people. We’ll get through this. It’ll be okay.” And I can tell you that that little fantasy lasted about 30 seconds before everything just seemed to stop and it was difficult to breathe. Life just completely came to a halt and it was really weeks and months before I could even start searching for the kind of support I knew had to exist for other types of loss.

Bonnie Carroll and her husband, Army Brigadier General Tom Carroll, before his death in 1992.

I knew what was out there based on the experiences I’d had before, but when it’s so personal, it just takes your breath away. And as many of our families say, it really knocks you to your knees. So, finding that while this support existed for firefighters and police and people who had lost a loved one to cancer or homicide or all sorts of other circumstances of loss, there wasn’t a peer based emotional support group for the military.

Because of my prior experience working in senior levels of government, I was able to go back and talk with senior leaders at the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and with all the other non-profit organizations working with military survivors, to really find out where the gaps were, what the needs were. I also talked to as many other survivors as I could find, especially reconnecting with those who had lost their husbands with mine.

And out of all of that, in two years of really, really trying, just to heal myself and do the assessing, look at gaps, TAPS was finally created in 1994. The model for the foundation for TAPS were four core services that were not addressed anywhere else, but that would beautifully complement what the government offers.

The government does a wonderful job of rendering final honors, providing that final resting place, and administering the financial benefits for eligible beneficiaries. But then really it’s up to us, the surviving families, to help each other heal, to give each other the emotional support that only another bereaved person can in this unique military family.

We also recognized right away that one of the big needs was 24/7 support because grief is hardest at two in the morning, not two in the afternoon. It’s not nine to five, Monday through Friday; it’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. It’s really those very lonely dark hours that for many of our families don’t seem survivable.

We also added in casework to help survivors navigate all of the complex paperwork and entitlements and other necessary support surrounding a death.

And then the fourth core service that TAPS offers is connecting families with the grief support that is already there in their local community; giving them that safe, soft landing place to go right there where they live, at a time when they just wouldn’t have the energy to find it themselves.

So that’s, that’s how TAPS came to be. And now we have wonderful relationships with our partner non-profits, we have great relationships and collaborations with the membership associations, like Gold Star Wives, Society of Military Widows, Gold Star Mothers, and we all worked together to really dovetail and complement care for all those grieving the death of a military loved one.

Martin: How challenging has it been to provide the service you do to these families during the pandemic? Obviously, military losses don’t stop because we’re in a pandemic, so there are more people that need your help. What adjustments have you had to make to maintain the level of work that you want to do during this time?

Carroll: Actually, right now we are receiving more bereaved military family members than we ever have, even at the height of the war. We have family members who are coming to us from communities across this country at a rate of, on average, 21 new surviving family members every day.

That will go beyond 7,000 this year, the most that we’ve ever had come to us in a single year. And these are moms and dads, brothers and sisters, widows, children, all grieving someone whose life included service to our country, and whose death was during or connected to that service. Right now we’re seeing the majority of those newly bereaved have actually lost loved ones to suicide or illnesses or to an accident; it’s a small percentage that are losing their loved ones to hostile action. But for our families, it doesn’t matter how or where the death occurred. It’s all about the life lived and the service given to this country. So that’s what we do – we honor and we remember all those who have served and died.

In terms of how our delivery of care shifted, to be honest, when the families come to us, the initial connection is usually by phone, by text, maybe by video chat, by whatever means is best and most comfortable for the family, but it’s happening right there in their home. We have a wonderful team; we have nearly a hundred folks who are working for TAPS.

Most of them are what we call peer professionals, meaning they’re survivors themselves, or military family members, and so they really understand grief and loss. But they’re connecting with surviving families where they need it, when they need it. And that hasn’t changed in the pandemic. We’re still doing it that way.

The only thing that really has shifted are the in-person events that we would have been doing throughout the year. The “Good Grief Camps” and the adult survivor seminars, those have shifted to a virtual platform. But you know what? We are now able to offer those virtual programs to even a bigger group of people.

We’ve learned a lot. As one surviving mom told me the other day, she said “I probably never would have been able to travel and go to this event.” But she said, “TAPS came right into my living room, and here you are. And I can now attend every event, not just the ones that would have been near me.” I love that.

Martin: How did TAPS and the NBA first connect and how has the partnership grown over the years to help support military families who had lost a loved one?

Carroll: We’re very fortunate that retired General Martin Dempsey, USA (18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) is on our board of directors and Bob Delaney, former NBA vice president for referee’s development and performance, is on our honorary board. Both of them have been wonderful about making tremendous connections for us with the NBA.

One of the great programs that we are part of is an association with the referees via the National Basketball Referee Association. I remember the referees, and either Bob [Delaney] or Scott Foster, took a TAPS family to a game and it was such a powerful experience for these kids to feel special, to feel seen and heard, and their loved one to be honored and remembered.

That got shared with other refs and it just became this wonderful program. Then we were able to go for a couple of years to the referees’ annual meeting, and really bond and have a chance to share that service, that sacrifice and, and have a lot of fun. So that was one part of the program.

And then through General Dempsey connecting TAPS with USA Basketball, and now with Kim Bohuny [Senior Vice President, Basketball Operations-International, NBA] and the international programs, we’ve been able to connect surviving families all over the world with USAB, the Men’s and Women’s National teams, and the Jr. NBA. It’s just grown into this wonderful relationship that just keeps building.

Martin: I’m sure there are plenty of amazing stories from some of the experiences the military families have had with NBA players and officials. Can you share a few with us? [Note: Diana Hosford – Vice President, Sports and Entertainment at TAPS joined to add some additional details.]

Carroll: What’s so magical about the relationship with TAPS and the NBA is that it’s coming at all different levels. We engage with the referees and that is really up close and personal with them. We’re in the referee locker rooms prior to the game and survivors have really meaningful experiences and then they sit in the ref seats during the game, and we ended up watching what they call the “third team.” We’re excited because we’re watching a professional basketball game, but also watching these referees that we’ve just met, and telling the fans not to yell and scream at them because they’re our new friends.

So it’s this really lovely connection that we’ve been able to make there and also at the club level, we’ve done some really, really wonderful things. The second team that we ever welcomed into our sports program (teams4taps) was the Washington Wizards and they continue to engage in really meaningful ways.

[Wizards General Manager] Tommy Shepherd has been wonderful, not only during the season, but also for our TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar in Washington, DC, over Memorial Day Weekend, helping to provide basketball hoops and even loaning us their practice facility when NBA international and NBA Cares bring, NBA/WNBA players and coaches to our national seminar to engage more than 500 military surviving children in drills and practices and tips. And it’s always a fantastic experience.

We’ve gone to games and have been hosted by clubs including WNBA and NBA G League. There have been players who’ve taken our kids to go shopping at the NBA Store. We have been invited to four NBA All-Star weekends. We’ve had TAPS kids participate in the NBA Draft. It’s an engaging experience because we’re involved at every level.

The league has welcomed families in so many fantastic ways that we really do feel like part of the NBA family. I mean any arena we go to, anywhere in America, it feels like home.

We’re currently doing an NBA operations program where we have the directors of scouting from a few different teams, come and meet with families every few weeks. To engage them, answer questions, talk about what it’s like to work behind the scenes.

We even did a 2020 NBA mock Draft, which was fantastic. And being able to do that virtually with our families across the country, who are really into basketball and really excited about. One surviving mom on a call that we did with the NBA operations team said, “this is the highlight of my week.”

One of my favorite stories involves a young 10-year-old, he and his brother attended a Wizards game with Scott Foster. The boy was saying how Bradley Beal was his favorite player, so Scott motioned and then Bradley came over and immediately the young boy starts giving Bradley some pointers. And the look on Bradley Beal’s face when this little military kid is telling him, you know, “I think you should do this and that” was just priceless.

Then Bradley takes the kid on court during warmups to shoot some hoops with him. He is playing with this little boy and made sure that he got to make a basket, and I’m telling you it was an amazing moment.  And I will tell you, five years later, that same kid is on those NBA operations calls and in the mock draft. I was in his Zoom room; that kid knows his basketball!

Another experience I want to highlight; we were so pleased to have Kevin Love join us for our Virtual National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar last month. He spoke about his challenges with his mental wellness and mental health and being an advocate.

He spoke so passionately, and I know that the survivors attending really thought he was a wonderful addition to the event. And I think gave people license because a lot of times when athletes or celebrities open up, or even surviving families opening up, it gives other people license to share that they didn’t have before.

Martin: You’ve dedicated your career to supporting grieving families and by doing that, you’re surrounded by so much loss and so many people that are grieving. Is it hard at times to keep a positive attitude and spirit or do these experiences and these things that you see is that what brings the joy?

Carroll: Absolutely. A lot of people ask that about, “Gosh, isn’t it tough working with grief and the pain of, you know, this awful loss?” But what I hear talking to families and what we see through these NBA engagements is pride, it’s love. And we always say at TAPS, the person has physically left us, but the love goes on forever. We never stopped loving that person. You never stopped honoring who they were and that their life included service to this country.

And what we’re able to create for the families is a place to celebrate that, to be joyous and to share their story with the players, with the referees and, sometimes with an entire venue when their loved one is up on a Jumbotron and their story is shared.

It’s what’s best about America. It’s so powerful, such a beautiful connection that I hope people will understand the depth of the impact that the NBA has had on the families of our nation’s fallen heroes.

Bonnie Carroll receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015.

Martin: I don’t ever really get a chance to speak with a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Can you take me back to that moment in 2015 and discuss the emotion that goes through you when you’re presented with such an honor?

Carroll: President Obama awarded the Medal to me in a recognition of American service and sacrifice. We worked so closely with him as Commander-in-Chief, throughout some of the toughest years of the war and our military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he felt every loss so personally, so he truly understood the impact of the work TAPS was quietly doing behind the scenes to offer comfort and support, to recognize all those who served and died.

What meant the most to me was the fact that our families, all across the country, started taking selfies of themselves with the TV on in the background when he was presenting the Medal and really claiming it as theirs as well and posting their pictures on social media. It was their award as well, and that’s what meant the most to me.