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Continuing the Mission – Caring for the Families of Those Who Gave Their Lives for Freedom

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Bonnie Carroll

We all have pivotal moments in our lives, but some are life-changing and forever alter our journey. Many families remember Sept. 11, 2001, as such a day. For me, however, that day arrived almost a decade earlier – Nov. 12, 1992, when my husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, was killed in an Army National Guard plane crash with seven other soldiers.

In the fog of the days, weeks and months that followed, I searched for support, only to realize there was no organization to help the family members left behind find hope and healing when a military loved one dies. What I discovered was that my best source of support were my peers — other families who were going through the same thing I was. I learned I wasn’t alone. We supported each other through those early years, and out of the power of peer support, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) was born. Since 1994, TAPS has used the peer support model to touch the lives of more than 70,000 surviving spouses, parents, siblings, children, battle buddies, and others who are grieving the death of a military loved one. A mother connects with another mother, a brother with another brother, a child with another child, and they walk hand in hand in their journey through grief. We are making a difference every day for the families of America’s fallen military heroes, but as the landscape changes, we are prepared to adapt to the changing needs of survivors.

At the time that TAPS was founded, it was impossible to know what would transpire over the years. On a clear day in September 2001, the course of our nation’s history would change forever, sparking 16 years of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. TAPS grew from a few hundred families to tens of thousands, providing critical services such as grief support, casework assistance, community-based care, a 24/7/365 helpline, seminars and retreats for adults, and camps for children.

In recent years, the American public has seen a large numbers of troops returning from conflict areas, and unfortunately many in the public think “the wars are over.” However, American troops continue to die as a result of hostile actions overseas, in training accidents at their home installations, from lingering illnesses, by suicide, or as a result of injuries related their service, and the need to provide support for surviving military families is greater than ever. In fact, last year we had more families come to TAPS than in any previous year in our history. This is partly because many bereaved families seek support months or years following the death, but it is also partly because the circumstances of many military deaths has changed. In 2016, more families came to TAPS following a death by suicide than due to hostile action, accidents or illness. To address this need among military surviving families, TAPS has been at the forefront of developing best practices for suicide postvention, to stabilize families in the wake of a military suicide and reduce effects of trauma and the risk of additional suicides.

Trauma frustrates the most basic human and psychological needs, and finding constructive ways to meet these needs is vital for healing. As an extension of its mission, TAPS is reaching out to other nations as a resource in traumatic grief. We have brought our peer support model abroad to families grieving the death of loved ones who served in the defense of freedom, livelihood, and homeland. TAPS has established partnerships in 20 countries, either with survivor support programs already in existence or through military leaders anxious to provide care for their bereaved. Our goals are to bring best practices in peer-based emotional support programs to our partner nations, create an international network of support across the coalition, strengthen an understanding that grief is universal, and give families a voice in creating stable societies.

The recent liberation of the city of Mosul from the Islamic State created a unique opportunity for TAPS to connect bereaved families there with an international community of support. In August, TAPS joined with the leadership of the Mosul Reconstruction and Development Group, to coordinate a humanitarian effort for the surviving families of Iraq. These leaders have already reached out to the international community and have received a significant response. TAPS will help to support those grieving the death of family members, as well as the loss of their homeland and their sense of security, as the rebuilding of Mosul begins. TAPS is already partnering with leading international non-governmental organizations to assist in basic humanitarian aid for widows struggling to support their families, innovative education programs for surviving children and emotional support for trauma survivors provided in partnership with the Center for Mind Body Medicine. TAPS will bring to Mosul its international best practices creating hope and healing, honoring and memorializing the deceased and providing their surviving loved ones with resources and support.

As TAPS approaches its 25th anniversary year, we will continue our mission of providing compassionate care for all those affected by the death of a military loved one. We also have the responsibility to take what we have learned about companioning the bereaved, the peer support model and other best practices to the broader professional community and help train others who can reach so many more who grieve. As the face of conflict continually changes, so too will the people affected by it. TAPS will be there for those who will need help today and tomorrow; it has shown its model is adaptable, ensuring no one needs to grieve alone.


Bonnie Carroll is president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. For more information about TAPS, visit TAPS.org. 

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