Survivor Supports Families in Wake of 9/11
By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 6, 2011 It’s been a decade since American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, but Bonnie Carroll vividly recalls the aftermath.
Bonnie Carroll, president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, assisted family members of the fallen in the wake of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. TAPS provides resources and support to family members with a fallen military loved one. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
As a family-support volunteer, she spent hours “listening and sharing” with families who were waiting to be notified about a missing loved one.
Carroll, president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, was among a team of volunteers who responded in the wake of the devastating terrorist attack that took 184 lives at the Pentagon.
That day “changed everything about the world in which we live,” she said. “It gave every American an appreciation of those on the front line protecting freedom -- a renewed sense of appreciation.”
Carroll was at home in Anchorage, Alaska, when the news broke about the terrorist attacks here and in New York, and she immediately felt compelled to help -- both as an Air Force reservist and as the president of TAPS. She had founded this organization to offer support to survivors of fallen military loved ones after her husband, Army Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, died in an Army C-12 plane crash in 1992.
In her reserve capacity, she was assigned to the Pentagon’s office of national security and emergency preparedness and had just wrapped up reserve duty there and returned home. But when she heard the news, she put on her uniform and was on the first plane out of Alaska.
Carroll put a call out to her TAPS peer mentors to come to Washington at their own expense to help. More than 200 responded in a “tremendous response,” she said. She arranged to have them serve six to 10 at a time in weeklong shifts offering 24/7 support to family members in the Pentagon Family Assistance Center at Crystal City's Sheraton Hotel in Virginia.
The center opened the morning of Sept. 12 and remained open around the clock until Oct. 12, helping both Defense Department victims' families and families of the passengers aboard Flight 77. Along with TAPS volunteers, the center was staffed by military community and family policy specialists, plus thousands of volunteers.
“We had folks who were surviving family members there to just be a comfort, to sit and hold hands,” Carroll said. “We had really, really tremendous people who stepped forward.
“It was just beautiful,” she added. “So much healing took place in that little closed environment. So much love and care and support, and the bonds that were formed exist to this day.”
To avoid burnout, Carroll scheduled the volunteers in one-week blocks so the peer mentors and survivor support team were “alert, fresh and ready,” she said.
“A big part of the effort … was providing tremendous care to those 500 families at center, but also care to our team members who also were survivors,” she noted.
The organization also brought in grief and trauma experts from around the nation. “We were focused on getting the best, most appropriate support in place that would complement the support provided by the DOD,” she said.
In time and as reports rolled in, Carroll said, the atmosphere of hope shifted into a time of solace and support.
Twice a day, she recalled, now-retired Army Gen. John A. Van Alstyne, then deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, briefed the families and take their questions.
The general offered families a fact-based, sometimes graphic briefing, and on some days, asked everyone to stand up and sing “God Bless America,” Carroll said. And then “he would remind everyone to breathe. People didn’t realize they were holding their breath.”
Carroll said the general often remarked, “Regardless of their job -- whether a contractor, DOD civilian or military member -- the day of their death, they were on duty for America.”
Carroll vividly recalls the family members she met and their reactions in the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon.
She remembers standing in the hall with Pat Hogan, an Air Force doctor who lost her Army major husband in the Pentagon. They were talking, when then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Erik K. Shinseki and his wife, Patricia, walked up.
Carroll said Hogan looked Shinseki in the eye -- just days after her husband had been killed -- and said, “I have no children; I have no husband. Nothing is holding me back. I want to transfer to the Army and I want to go to the front lines.”
“I would have thought he would have patted her on the head and told her to take time to grieve,” Carroll said, choking up. “But he said, ‘You got it.’”
However, the Air Force chief of staff at the time, now-retired Gen. John P. Jumper, got wind of the conversation and asked her to stay in the Air Force. He said he’d send her with pararescue personnel to Afghanistan so she could serve as their doctor.
“She left soon after,” Carroll said. “She’s amazing.”
Carroll also recalls the Hemingway family from Kansas, who lost their son, a father of two.
“They hung in there all day every day for six weeks,” she said, “and then they were the last family to be told that nothing of their son could be identified. There was nothing found.”
After six weeks, the support center closed down, Carroll said, but TAPS volunteers continued to support the families of the fallen -- the same mission that continues today. The organization’s support includes peer-based emotional support, a 24/7 help line, support groups, seminars and one-on-one counseling.
In turn, many of the 9/11 surviving family members became staunch supporters of TAPS, she said. Lisa Dolan, whose Navy husband died in the Pentagon, started a therapy dog program for TAPS’ Good Grief Camp, which offers support to children of fallen service members.
Another survivor, Joyce Johnson, who lost her husband, works for TAPS as part of the adult survivor support team, which reaches out to those with newly lost loved ones.
Their contributions speak to their resilience, she said, as well as the resilience of the nation.
This year marks a decade since the tragedy occurred, but Carroll said Americans are reminded of the attacks every day.
“Every time we go through airport security or see a flag-draped coffin on the front page of the paper, every time we hear about security concerns,” she said, “we’re reminded of where this journey began and the precious nature of our freedom and the fragile world in which we live.”