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Commentary: It Takes a Country

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard)
Arlington National Cemetery (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard)

Bonnie Carroll is president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. She retired from the Air Force Reserve in 2012 after 30 years of service.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors -- known as "TAPS" -- was founded more than 20 years ago to compliment the ability of our government to render honors and administer benefits. TAPS leans forward in those dark moments after a casualty to provide the kind of genuine compassion, comfort and support that families so desperately need in the face of sudden and tragic military loss.

When military tragedy strikes today, TAPS is there for all who are grieving, from the hours and days immediately after the heartbreaking news of a lost warrior to the months and years to come.

When it comes to death, there simply are no magic words. Whether it's a clergy member, a doctor in a trauma ward, a pair of uniformed officers at your door -- or a President of the United States -- no one has ever yet found the exact right words with which to take away the pain of grief following the tragic loss of a loved one.

It is unfortunate that in recent days we as a society have taken one of the most intensely personal family interactions with our government and publicly recounted a series of contrasting conversations between different presidents and survivors. As if loss, tragedy and sacrifice, like a convention speech or a presidential debate, can somehow be rated or graded on a scale.

As was powerfully described by General John Kelly in his remarks from the White House podium, there is no one perfect way to express condolences to the family of a fallen member of our armed forces. For most military families, what is important is to hear that the life and service of their loved one profoundly matters to our nation and its people. And to hear that both from ordinary neighbors and friends, and from our national leaders as well.

For some, personal acknowledgement from a president might offer a sense of the importance to our nation of their family's sacrifice. For others, such communications might go by in a blur. For most, it's probably often something in between. As Gen. Kelly reminded America, often the most memorable conversations are with those who served with or knew our fallen heroes. Hearing friends and battle buddies share stories of selfless service, support, bravery, devotion and friendship are compelling and meaningful.  Those stories provide indelible memories.

At the end of the day it's a good thing any time a president seeks to offer comfort in some way. It's a good thing that today more and more Americans recognize and want to do the same. In 1992, when my Soldier husband was killed in an Army plane crash, there was no national program for me to join, no place for me to seek comfort, support and resources. There was no community to meet those vital needs. So in 1994 I founded TAPS, where -- at a whole different level than the president, the Pentagon, or the government of the United States -- we as survivors helping survivors heal offer compassionate comfort to all who are grieving a military loss, today caring for more than 70,000 family members.

We offer an opportunity to come together as America's family of all those mourning a military loved one and provide hope and healing. In 2015, in recognition of this care for those who have paid the ultimate price for service in our military, I was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and I accepted it on behalf of all who are grieving their fallen hero.

This week's national dialogue has helped to turn the focus back on the families who are at the heart of this story, and all those grieving the death of a military loved one. At TAPS we honor America's fallen heroes and let their families know that their loved ones will never be forgotten, and they will never be alone. We welcome all those grieving a military loved one needing our care and all those who want to support the mission in whatever way they can at taps.org.  

Since 1994, TAPS has provided compassionate care for the families of America's fallen military heroes and has offered support to more than 70,000 surviving family members and their caregivers. For more information about volunteering with TAPS, visit taps.org.

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