At a recent gathering of mourning Ukrainian families in the central city of Dnipro, there was a FaceTime call between a Ukrainian father and an American father, both of whom had lost a son in war.
Despite a language barrier, the fathers connected on several levels, connecting on everything from their sons’ deaths to sports.
It was the first time the Ukrainian man had laughed since his son died, family members said.
“It was a beautiful moment, everyone realizing we’re all there with a broken heart,” said Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. “They [survivors] were no longer alone in that pain and grief.”
Since 1994, TAPS has provided emotional support to more than 75,000 U.S. military families, casualty officers and caregivers grieving the loss of a beloved service member, according to its website.
Today, TAPS is sharing what it has learned about peer-based emotional support with an increasing number of countries around the world ― most recently Ukraine. Carroll recently returned from a seven-day trip there to help the war-torn country establish a program of its own.
“It’s an opportunity for us to bring the world a little closer together,” she said. “If families who have sacrificed in the cause of freedom can come together, how powerful is that?”
Since 2014, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have been killed during fighting with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern region of the country, according to figures from the Ukrainian Memorial Book to the Fallen.
Carroll said TAPS wants to assist Ukrainians in supporting the families of the fallen soldiers, especially since Ukraine is a partner in the U.S.-led global coalition against ISIS.
In Dnipro, TAPS also helped Ukrainian survivors connect with one another using the same peer support methods employed in the United States.
At one point, the survivors held hands in a circle and took turns sharing the name of their lost loved one. When Carroll asked if anyone had a photo of their loved one that they wanted to share, every person in the room reached into their purse or pulled out their cell phone.
A retired Air Force Reserve major and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Carroll founded TAPS in 1994 after she lost her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, in an Army C-12 plane crash in Alaska. The organization was intended to fill what Carroll perceived as a deep need within the military community for survivor services.
Last year, 6,000 new military survivors came to TAPS for care in the U.S. The organization says it provides four core services to help survivors cope with grief: peer-based emotional support, a 24/7 helpline, casework assistance and help connecting with free and unlimited grief counseling.
TAPS has focused on expanding its international program and now has partnerships with 24 different countries spanning the globe, Carroll said.
As the Ukrainian program gets off the ground, Carroll said TAPS will continue to provide guidance and support. The two teams will meet again twice this month, first in Rochester, New York, and later in Kiev, Ukraine.