THE BLOG
05/25/2014 01:15 pm ET | Updated Jul 25, 2014

The Meaning of Memorial Day: A Military Widow Reflects on Life, Loss and Moving Forward

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For so many people, Memorial Day is about the start of summer, family cookouts and trips to the beach. And while all those things celebrate the freedoms we all enjoy as Americans, for the families of our fallen troops Memorial Day is deeply personal.

It's a day when I remember my husband, Army Brigadier General Tom Carroll, who died in Alaska in November 1992 alongside 7 other soldiers during what should have been a routine flight. I remember his dashing good looks, his insightful personality, his love for classic cars and most especially -- his smile.

I also remember on Memorial Day the journey through grief that I and thousands of other military families have made. My steps forward since 1992 are intrinsically linked to the death of my husband in service to our great nation. The feelings I carry on Memorial Day are a mixture of pride in his service, joy in remembering him and sorrow over his death -- all bundled inside one person.

The months and early years after Tom's death were hard for me -- and for the other families whose loved ones died on that cold mountain. Our lives were blanketed in sorrow and we had to find our way outside the military community and establish what our "new normal" would be.

Our lives had headed down a path none of us had chosen. Yet, here we were living it. When we gathered for the first anniversary of that 1992 crash, we found solace and strength in each other -- finding true understanding and peer support.

I undertook two years of research into the support services available for bereaved military families and designed the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to fill gaps in care.

TAPS provides comfort and care to all those grieving the death of a loved one in military service to America. We offer peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, grief seminars and retreats for adults, Good Grief Camps for children, case work assistance, connections to community-based care, online and in-person support groups and a 24/7 resource and information helpline for all who have been affected by a death in the Armed Forces.

Who would have known back then that because of our work in peacetime that TAPS would stand ready to comfort the families of those who died at the Pentagon on 9/11? And that we would embrace the families of thousands of Americans who paid the ultimate price in Iraq and Afghanistan? TAPS has assisted more than 50,000 people affected by military deaths in combat, training accidents and by suicide.

This may be our last Memorial Day with U.S. combat troops stationed in Afghanistan. And while our nation is moving toward closing the chapter on the Global War on Terror, the reality is that our military families will live with the impact of loss for a lifetime.

It takes on average, 5-7 years for a family to reach a "new normal" after suffering a traumatic loss. Hundreds of children and teens attend our TAPS Good Grief Camp year after year, for help in coping with the loss that they live with every day.

More than 2,400 people will gather this weekend near Washington, DC to participate over Memorial Day weekend in the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp. Together, we will remember the love and celebrate the lives of our fallen troops.

For the youngest in the TAPS family, this is special weekend filled with memories of love and pride for a parent or sibling they lost. One of the children who "grew up" attending camp wrote to me recently saying:

I grew up in TAPS. After losing my dad I was able to find other kids who knew how I felt. We learned stuff on how to grieve and I don't feel that isolated and alone anymore. Now that I am 18 and headed off to college, I want to be there and support those younger kids who are just like I was at 5-years old. I want to give them the same life changing experience I had at TAPS, that chance to wear the red tee shirt, and backpack, and just feel normal for a few days.

Children like Weston, who lost his dad in 2002 during preparation for deployment, show the need for long-term TAPS support services for the families of our fallen military. The needs of these families will go far beyond the end of hostilities. More than 500 school-aged children like Weston will be part of the TAPS Good Grief Camp this weekend. These children are the living legacy of the brave men and women who died while serving our country.

While deaths in war zones are often public and attract attention, our service members lose their lives in peacetime too. They leave behind parents, spouses, siblings, children and a host of people who are deeply affected.

It is my hope, that our nation does not forget our military families who have paid the ultimate price in service to country, when the Afghanistan war draws to a close. We won't forget them and we stand ready to help -- whether a death occurs on the drill field, on foreign soil or here at home.

When I walk into the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day for the official national observances alongside Weston and hundreds of others who have lost a loved one serving our country -- I will remember Tom, and so many others who have given so much to this country. We have our freedoms and dreams today -- because of their sacrifices. And I will renew my commitment to honor our fallen military troops every day, by continuing the TAPS mission to care for their families.

Won't you join us?

Bonnie Carroll is a military widow and the founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Get more information about TAPS at www.taps.org.

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