I recently had the opportunity to interview a movie star, a high level bureaucrat, an expert equestrianne, a trainer of a Kentucky Derby winner, a skilled political observer and the founder of a national nonprofit that provides services to military families who have just lost a loved one. The surprising thing – they were all one person – Bonnie Carroll.
Bonnie has probably had more unique and interesting experiences than any other 5 people you may know.
Bonnie learned responsibility early. When she was 9 or 10 her mother was diagnosed with cancer. As an only child with a working father, it fell to Bonnie to manage the household. This included cooking and laundry among other tasks. This responsibility helped shape Bonnie’s outlook and work ethic and would come into play numerous times in the future.
Out of high school she attended Morven Park International Equestrian Institute (which was later taken over as a training site for the Olympic Equestrian Team). This was known as the “Julliard for horse people.”
One of her first jobs was working with the Firestone family. The Firestones had a thoroughbred breeding farm in Virginia. With race horses, the colts are when the money is, but in 1979 there were two fillies on the Firestone’s farm and Bonnie and another girl on the farm were given them to train. When the trainer came he surprised everyone by passing on the colts and taking the fillies immediately to the track. One of those fillies, “Genuine Risk” went on to win the Kentucky Derby and was later bred to Secretariat, the only time in history two Kentucky Derby winners were mated. Although she loved working with horses, it became clear that it’s a difficult way to make a living, and so Bonnie moved on to explore other opportunities.
Growing up, Bonnie’s family had been politically active, so being around politics wasn’t completely foreign to her. As she transitioned away from horses she headed into nearby Washington, starting out as a volunteer helping in the newly elected Reagan Administration. Having gained a strong work ethic on the farm, she found that “if you work hard, people tend to notice.”
As a result, she was noticed by Charlie Black and Roger Stone of Black, Manafort and Stone. Knowledgeable political observers are very familiar with the work of this firm and the young partners who had masterminded the successful Reagan campaign.
After working there for a year and half, she told the partners that she had enlisted in the Air National Guard and would need six weeks to attend Basic Training. Charlie Black asked why she would do something like that, just as their firm was getting its start, and she simply replied, “To serve my country.” The partners were great and wrote me letters in basic training and continued to be very supportive when I returned.
Bonnie’s work eventually brought her to the attention of the Reagan White House, and she ultimately became executive assistant for Cabinet Affairs, a role that included coordinating cabinet level agencies. She was working in the West Wing of the White House when three California Grey Whales became trapped in the Artic ice, an event that captured world attention. President Reagan became aware of the plight of the whales and, knowing that Bonnie was in the National Guard, asked her to call the Colonel in charge of the rescue operation to see if the Federal Government could provide support. It was through this outreach that Bonnie me the man who would become her husband, Colonel Tom Carroll. The story of the whale rescue and the romance between the White House staffer and the Alaska National Guard Colonel was recently portrayed in the film “Big Miracle”, starring Drew Barrymore, Ted Danson, John Krasinski with Dermot Mulroney playing Tom Carroll and Vinessa Shaw playing Bonnie. If you look carefully you’ll see that Bonnie is an extra at her own wedding.)
Bonnie enjoyed living in Alaska, where she and her husband were very active in the community. They had two foster children and custody of Tom’s daughter from a previous marriage, and created a happy and very busy home. But all that came to a halt in November of 1992 when then-Brigadier General Tom Carroll was killed, along with seven other soldiers, in an Army National Guard plane crash.
In the aftermath of her husband’s death, Bonnie struggled to find support among others who could understand the pain of her grief. It was surprising to find that this sort of program didn’t exist. So, Bonnie set about creating the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), the kind of organization that would be there for all those grieving a death in the military. Coming back to Washington, now as the widow of an Alaska Army Guardsman, Bonnie remembers a senior Pentagon official stopping a meeting and asking her about her background. When she admitted to serving in the White House prior to life in Alaska, he said with amusement, “I knew you weren’t just a widow from Alaska!”
“In retrospect, if Tom hadn’t been a general or if he had died of an illness instead of in the military airplane crash, or if I hadn’t been in the military or known how to navigate Washington, TAPS might not have happened. But in talking with the military if someone said that I didn’t understand, I was able to counter with being a fellow survivor, a fellow service member, or a fellow public servant.
During her time in the Air Force Reserve, after leaving the Guard, Bonnie served as the chief of Casualty Operations for the Air Force. Directing the Casualty Care program and assigning notification officers was invaluable in expanding the services TAPS provides to families in partnership with the military.
In August of 2001, Bonnie accepted her next assignment with the Air Force Reserve in the Office of National Security and Emergency Preparedness, ensuring readiness in the event the Pentagon or White House was ever attacked. No one could have predicted the terrorist attack that did take place on September 11, 2001, forever changing our nation. When Bonnie reported to active duty, she asked to be assigned to the Pentagon Family Assistance Center and was able to be there to lead efforts to provide care to the families of those killed.
Following this effort, the President appointed Bonnie as the White House Liaison to the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she served from January 2001 until November 2003. At that time, the White House asked for volunteers to go to Baghdad to support the reconstruction efforts and Bonnie volunteered. There she worked with Ambassador Paul Bremer in the Coalition Provisional Authority as Deputy Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Communications.
Reflecting on these many different experiences, Bonnie is grateful that TAPS is, today, the organization she envisioned, providing comfort and care to thousands of bereaved military families. For more information about this remarkable organization, please go to: www.TAPS.org
What was your first paying job? Working with horses, galloping race horses, teaching riding, grooming, etc.
What one word describes you best? Compassionate.
Staff answer; Not a one word answer, but we call her the “energizer bunny.” Honorable and kind. A consensus formed around the word ‘driven’.
What trait do you admire most in others? Loyalty and people who are genuinely kind. This whole human experience is such a brief time, we must do what we can to help each other.
What traits do you most deplore? The antithesis of the above. People who are mean –spirited.
What’s always in your fridge? Besides the light bulb? I do a lot of juicing so carrots and apples.
Is there a phrase that you use too much? Yay!
What is your greatest indulgence? When I can have quiet time, mostly now on nights or weekends, it’s the chance to reach out to recently bereaved families. To be able to connect with another human being at that level is such a gift to come into a family’s life at their darkest moment to offer comfort and care and resources and support, and to have them trust you with that part of their soul. What touches me about TAPS, is that we have created a trust level where people will call, ,even at 2 o’clock in the morning, and know that someone will be there who will listen and care and help.
What’s the best gift you have ever given? The best gifts given or received are those that are intangible, but speaking of a material gift – there is one that keeps popping in my mind. I used to be a nationally ranked competitive pistol shooter. For our wedding, my husband gave me a very complex pistol for a difficult shooting competition. The handle was perfectly balanced. No one else would understand how much that meant to me. It was always made us laugh, when people would say to him – you gave her a gun?
Secondly, “When the President asked me to call Alaska and check on the whale rescue. That put a lot of things in motion. My husband was an amazing gift in my life. I still learn a lot from him. To hear his voice in a news clip from the rescue used in the movie “Big Miracle” was a great gift.”
What’s the best gift you have ever given? My husband had a serious illness and we didn’t think he was going to make it, and then he recovered. Even though our finances were tight (we had 3 teenagers in the house), I scraped together enough money to get the E type Jaguar that he had been looking at. He was so happy, and we felt we were given a chance at life again. Then three weeks later he was killed in a military plane crash.
Bonnie has had the Jaguar fully restored by the very best company in the United States, Vintage Jaguar, and pictures can be viewed on their site – www.vintagejag.com.
Favorite childhood memory? The time I spent with my mother.
A talent that you would like to have? I would love to be able to sing.
Musical abilities? I played the flute in the high school band.
Current State of Mind? Excited. Really excited about everything that is happening with TAPS. We have a wonderful team. We have people creating new parts of our program. It’s such a blessing to have people carrying the vision and program forward. To see people stepping up to do something for our families is really tremendous.
To see senior leadership in the military engaged and supportive is wonderful. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a fan of the work TAPS does for surviving families, and this year at the national Good Grief Camp, he sang a very special song that he wrote just for the children.
Favorite writer? Leo Buscaglia. Also known as “the hug doctor.” One of his books is called, “Living, Loving and Learning.” This book talks a lot about death but in such a beautiful way. His words are always running through my mind. My copy is very dog-eared.
Motto or personal saying? “Remember the love, celebrate the life, share the journey.” It’s the motto of TAPS and it means that we must remember the amazing love that was in our lives, honor the life and service of our loved one, and come together as a community to support each other.
Who is your Hero? My husband. Definitely. I also loved working for Ronald Reagan. He was an extraordinary man to work with. He just had a personal connection with lots of people. He believed that government was there to serve the people, and this was apparent in his interest in the whale rescue and how we might provide resources.
Favorite movie? Big Miracle, of course!
How do you keep smiling when you are around such sadness? If you have the tools and the resources to provide comfort and access resources to help, it’s actually empowering. If you have no tools and no skill set, it can be completely debilitating, but we at TAPS have all had the personal experience of loss and that enables us to go forward with an open heart and widespread arms.
What’s next for TAPS? Continuing to provide resources and support for the families of America’s fallen heroes, and embracing those who are grieving the loss of their loved one. We have a lot to do, and we are committed to doing it well and honoring this nation’s service and sacrifice for freedom!