Vets' advocate has key role in whale rescue film

By Eric Tucker

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 24 2012 11:15 a.m. MST

In this image released by Universal Pictures, Drew Barrymore is shown in a scene from "Big Miracle," a film about the rescue of a family of gray whales trapped by rapidly forming ice in the Arctic Circle. The film, which stars Barrymore and Ted Danson opens Feb. 3.

Universal Pictures, Darren Michaels, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Bonnie Carroll is well-known in veterans' circles as the founder of a vast organization that provides grief counseling and help for thousands of families of fallen military members. But it was her involvement nearly 25 years ago in a high-seas effort to rescue three grey whales stranded off Alaska that is now receiving Hollywood treatment.

Carroll and her late husband Tom are prominent characters in the upcoming "Big Miracle," a film chronicling the Reagan administration's 1988 partnership with the Soviet Union, environmentalists and oil companies to free the whales — a costly and ultimately successful effort that drew international attention.

"What was extraordinary about this event was that it brought together the military, the Alaska Natives, Greenpeace, the oil companies and then finally the Soviets," Carroll said. "Those are entities that rarely work collaboratively and are often at odds and they all came together to save these whales."

The film, which stars Drew Barrymore and Ted Danson and opens Feb. 3, gives Carroll a chance to relive the dramatic rescue and her romance with her husband. But it's also a platform to draw attention to her group, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, whose work she says may become even more critical now that the Obama administration has ended the Iraq war.

The organization was formed two years after Carroll lost her husband, Alaska National Guard Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, in a plane crash. She fell in love with him over the phone during the whale rescue effort and wed soon after. Then she and seven others were killed in a 1992 crash of an Army C-12 plane.

Carroll had worked closely with survivors of violent crime, but she struggled to find a comparable support network until bonding with the other widows of the accident.

"We really just had the same fears, the same concerns, the same questions," Carroll said. "It became very apparent that that was a strong source of comfort, to speak with another person who can validate and normalize your own feelings," she said.

The epiphany led to the 1994 formation of TAPS, which today says it's helped about 30,000 bereaved families with everything from crisis intervention and grief counseling to navigating government bureaucracy. The organization says it has more than 1,000 survivors who are trained peer mentors and volunteer to help others.

But the film concerns itself with a different episode of her life, back when Bonnie Carroll was Bonnie Mersinger, a National Guard member and young Reagan administration aide pulling long hours in the White House.

The movie centers on the international spectacle that unfolded in October 1988, when three California grey whales became trapped during their migration south beneath ice east of Barrow, Alaska. Complex efforts to free the mammals —Eskimos used chain saws to carve breathing holes in the ice and a National Guard helicopter towed a massive icebreaking barge — failed to do the trick. One of the trapped whales disappeared and was presumed dead.

President Ronald Reagan, aware of Mersinger's National Guard service and out of easy options, sought her involvement.

Mersinger made contact with Col. Tom Carroll, an Alaska Army National Guard commander, who as other options failed suggested the Americans request the use of Soviet icebreakers to smash through the ice ridge. It was a gutsy call because of lingering Cold War tensions between the superpowers, but the icebreakers proved successful. The whales eventually broke free into the open sea.

Besides Barrymore, who plays an environmental activist, the cast also features Ted Danson, John Krasinski and Kristen Bell. Bonnie Carroll's character is played by Vinessa Shaw, while Dermot Mulroney plays the part of Tom — albeit with different names. It's directed by Ken Kwapis, who calls Bonnie Carroll a "soulful," can-do person as exemplified by the whale rescue and also the creation of TAPS.

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