The military is a family, and not even death can end those familial bonds.
This truism was demonstrated again May 28 as Defense Secretary Ash Carter threw open the doors of the Pentagon to more than 350 members of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, commonly known as TAPS.
These are the families who have all received the news no one ever wants to hear — that their loved one has died.
Carter, his wife Stephanie and TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll welcomed all participants to the Pentagon with military coins and hugs. “We think of you — our family here in the Department of Defense – think of you as forever a part of our family,” Carter said. “Know that we love you. Your country loves you. We will never forget why you’re here. We can never make that up to you, but we can always remember. We can always treasure you. Welcome home.”
Carroll was motivated to form the organization when her husband, Army Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll and seven others, were killed in the crash of a C-12 in Alaska in 1992. “I went looking for the kind of support organization I knew existed for other types of loss in our society and found it just wasn’t there,” she said. “It had never been created in America for military families grieving a loss.”
Carroll did two years of work to identify gaps in service and find where the needs were. In 1994, she created TAPS. The group provides care and support to an average of 13 new survivors every day. The program runs 24/7 and offers care to more than 60,000 surviving family members.
“Every American should serve,” said one man who lost his son in Iraq. “It doesn’t have to be in the military, but somewhere in the community — soup kitchens, parks, whatever. Think how much better we would be if that happened.”
The survivors are proud of their service, too. “Our loved ones were part of that one percent who did step forward and raised their right hands and pledged to protect and defend the freedoms of this country, and when they did so their families served right along with them,” Carroll said. “So when their sacrifice was made, their family sacrificed also.”
The group has been coming to the Pentagon for just a couple of years, Carroll said, and they are grateful to all the service members who volunteer to work with the group. It can also lead to healing. She said that last year one of the Coast Guard rescue swimmers who was helping with the kids noticed a TAPS volunteer wearing a button that said “suicide loss team.”
“He shared that he had just lost his son to suicide,” she said. “That’s what TAPS is about. It’s connecting at the heart level. It’s about finding those who are grieving in silence and standing alone and bringing them into a family where they are loved and understood.”
Finding the new normal
Cheryl Lankford has been in the program since her husband, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan Lankford, died in Iraq on Sept. 22, 2007.
Lankford lives in San Antonio and now uses her experiences to help other grieving families.
She said most Americans have been supportive of the military, but they often forget that when a service member dies, there are family members left behind.
“One of the things that I like to tell people is that my husband was more than a soldier — which he was, and he loved it — but he was a husband and he was a father and he was a brother and a son and a battle buddy and a command sergeant major,” she said.
Lankford is now a senior TAPS peer mentor. “This program has been a life-changer and a life-saver for me and my 11-year-old son,” she said. “In the last nine years, we’ve had to come into a new normal, understanding what our lives look like now, the transition that we’ve been going through. Coming together with other survivors of military loss helps with that transition.”
Coming together was the goal of the evening, and plenty of volunteers helped to facilitate it.
Each of the services had representatives posted at various parts of the Pentagon to host the survivors. The National Basketball Association — including some of its stars — worked with the kids in the Pentagon courtyard. Kids petted horses, watched a Marine Corps K-9 demonstration, spun around the turret in a Humvee, sat in a Coast Guard rescue basket and much more.
“We’re really humbled by the way the service members in the Pentagon have turned out for us,” Carroll said.
The survivors have a full itinerary planned for the weekend, culminating at Arlington National
Cemetery May 30.