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.
"She strikes me as someone who doesn't suffer fools, who's very no-nonsense, gets things done. But at the same time, the way she does it is with a smile and a generosity that I think separates her from a lot of people," Kwapis said.
Carroll said she bonded over the phone with her future husband, a military man she refers to as "dashing," and decided she'd marry him before they even met. They wed in 1989, an event recreated in the film with Carroll playing an extra. They were living in Alaska when the 1992 plane crash occurred.
Using insurance money from her husband's death, and her experience with the federal government and as a military reservist, Carroll channeled her grief into a peer-based support network for military families.
While the government is responsible for alerting the family, returning the body and recovering personal effects, TAPS offers a more emotional, softer-edged counterpart to the formal rituals that accompany a soldier's death. It relies on small comforting touches — an email on the anniversary of a soldier's death, for instance — but also more substantial help, like grief counseling and peer mentoring.
The organization, which requires no dues or fees, holds camps for children who have lost a parent. It trains those who have lost relatives to comfort other bereaved families. And the organization's help extends to not only widows but anyone grieving the loss of a soldier. Its network includes counselors and lawyers and staff social workers
The needs are often unpredictable. Sometimes a mother needs someone to talk to at 3 a.m. or in the days leading up to the anniversary of her son's death. Sometimes a grieving relative needs help collecting benefits. The 2009 massacre at the Fort Hood military installation triggered a barrage of calls from anxious relatives reliving the moment they were notified of a loved one's loss.
Among those helped by TAPS is Miranda Luke, of Greenwood, Ark., whose husband Samson, an Army captain, died two years ago of heart problems while home on a National Guard drill weekend. She said the military denied her death benefits because her husband, who was twice deployed to Iraq, had died at home and not in the vicinity of the base. Luke said Carroll heard about her struggle, wrote letters on her behalf and helped her locate a pro bono attorney. Luke ultimately prevailed in her effort to get the benefits.
"She really just kept the fire burning on this issue. Every time it seemed to float out of people's minds, she would shove it back in there," Luke said. "She was really my biggest advocate."
Though the Iraq war has ended, Carroll said TAPS will be just as busy given the number of deaths from suicide, risky behavior and illness she expects to see.
"The next five years are going to be far more intense than the last five years, and we won't have really the public sentiment and the headlines we did, which helped get support for the organization," she said.
Carroll said her organization always seeks pictures and anecdotes from grieving families and tries to help them honor a soldier's life rather than focus on the trauma of a death.
She recites by memory stories she's heard from grieving families, like the mother of one Marine who said she knew her son would be a daredevil from the day he built a ramp for his Big Wheel bike and drove off it. That's why participating in the film, and reliving the joy of her own marriage, carries resonance.
"To actually hear his voice and see his face is a precious gift," she said.