Sometimes, support organizations spring up as the result of a need in the military community, founded by someone who personally experienced a shortcoming. And many times, those organizations make the most impact.
Take Bonnie Carroll. She founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors after her husband, Army Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, died in an Army C-12 crash in 1992, and she realized there were few resources for surviving loved ones of those who die while on active duty.
Carroll recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in a White House ceremony. Like many who are focused on service to others, she's quick to shift credit to other people — from the TAPS leadership team to the thousands of survivors who are part of TAPS.
But those who know TAPS know that Carroll has made it what it is today. From the early days more than 20 years ago, it was not unusual for her to be on the phone talking to a distraught family member in the middle of the night, listening to their outpourings of grief, pointing them to possible resources. She'd quietly help family members navigate bureaucracies. She has built TAPS from scratch into an organization that enfolds more than 60,000 survivors, providing assistance at no cost to them.
It's the kind of work that the government can't duplicate easily. But Carroll has developed relationships with the military casualty officials, as they both work to help survivors. When 9/11 happened, and an upward spiral of wartime military deaths quickly followed, TAPS was there to offer support to countless family members and other loved ones.
But that support has never been limited to wartime deaths; TAPS offers help to those grieving for any service member who dies on active duty, whether from an improvised explosive device, a training accident, or suicide, for example.
And unlike some government programs, TAPS is not exclusive. Its programs are offered to loved ones regardless of whether or not they are next of kin, and whether or not they qualify for military benefits. TAPS has helped many spouses and children, of course, but also has supported and comforted parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, fiances and fiancees, partners, friends and colleagues.
Carroll knew from the beginning: Death affects a wide circle of people.
Carroll has been single-minded and focused on how to help these loved ones — setting up gatherings for them, for example, because she understands there can be powerful healing from talking with others who are grieving. These survivors have a lot in common in losing a loved one on active duty. They are proud of their service members, and above all, they want to honor their memory. Carroll has known this from the start, and keeps these things foremost in her focus of the work. And as needs evolve, she tries to meet them.
TAPS has long had mentor programs for survivors, and has "Good Grief" camps for children around the country where they connect with other children who have lost a loved one. They are also paired with mentors who are service members.
Carroll doesn't like to talk about herself, but many others are quick to sing her praises.
"Bonnie has selflessly devoted her life to caring for survivors. It's her passion, her life. She's dedicated to this over and above herself. She's a true example of sacrifice," said Kim Ruocco, TAPS' chief external relations officer for suicide prevention and postvention.
"She's a hero to all of us who work with her … an inspiration," Ruocco said. "She's a true American hero. She doesn't do it to be acknowledged; she does it because it's needed and it makes a difference in people's lives."
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.