Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Bonnie Carroll, founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and the real-life person who actress Vinessa Shaw plays in Universal’s new film, Big Miracle.
In just a little over 24 hours from when I sat down with Bonnie, she was set to host the red carpet premiere for the film. Universal Pictures was so greatful to Bonnie for her assistance as a technical advisor for the film, they not only made a generous donation to TAPS, but they co-sponsored the event with TAPS in an effort to raise money for this wonderful organization.
Bonnie was an integral part during the whale rescue in Alaska that is portrayed in the film. She met her husband, Tom Carroll during the whale rescue. In actuality though, she only spoke with Tom on the phone during the rescue, but through their conversations the two developed a deep connection between the two of them, so much so that when they met in person, they already knew they were going to be married.
Tragically just several years later Tom passed away in an Army plane crash. But Bonnie turned her grief into a desire to help others who had lost family members in the military. TAPS was founded to provide support to families grieving the loss of a family member and provide them the opportunity to connect with other families in their same position.
Since the foundation of TAPS, the organization has helped over 30,000 families.
After reading the interview below, I invite you to please visit www.taps.org and make a donation.
Big Miracle opens in theaters on Friday, February 3rd.
What was it like to be asked to be technical adviser for the film? Did you feel as though you had any creative input?
Bonnie Carroll: One of the story lines in the film Big Miracle includes how I met my husband. I was a White House staffer working for Ronald Regan back in 1988 and my husband was a Colonel in the Army National Guard in Alaska, specifically Barrow, Alaska during the whale rescue. Right afterâ€¦actually during the rescue one of journalists up there was a guy named Tom Rose who was a stringer and was covering the whale rescue for Japanese television. Out of this incredible media event he wrote the book Freeing the Whales and he actually got in touch with my husband and I. We wound up becoming great friends and had input on our part of the book. He came to our wedding. He told us that the rights to the book had been sold to Universal for a film. So way back in 1989 we thought it was going to be made into a motion picture. So here we are 22 years later and that’s come to pass. It’s incredibly exciting and I’ve lived this story for over 2 decades. My husband and I collected a lot of artwork from the gray whale rescue and this [Bonnie held up a hat from one of the Soviet Ships] is from the Soviets. This event was very much a part of our lives. Tragically, in the interim my husband was killed in an Army plane crash. Out of that very sad chapter I formed an organization for all military surviving families called TAPS. But when the film came to Alaska I was able to get together with the director and producer right away, when they were scouting for location and share with them my scrapbook that I’ve had from this time.
[Bonnie showed me this large scrapbook filled with articles, pictures, memos written in the White House and letters during and after the whale rescue that she had shared with the film's producers and director]
How was it when President Regan approached you to be a part of this event?
Carroll: He (President Regan) was very much a humanitarian and an animal lover and had seen the whale rescue on television and that the Army National Guard was involved. Ultimately, he was the Commander in Chief. That was where his purview came into play. He stopped by and asked me to check on it and see how he could help. So, just a very genuine offer of assistance. So I called up to Alaska, was put in touch with Colonel Tom Carroll and the President engaged in a phone call with him the very next day offering his support. Tom called back a few days later and requested assistance from President Regan in calling Mikhail Gorbachev to bring in the Soviet Icebreakers.
How did your personal relationship with Tom begin?
Carroll: Actually, in that very first phone call that night. There was just something, where we connected. I mean really connected. Like just as if we’d known each other before. And that initial connection carried through for our entire life, our marriage. Even in that first communication as we were talking about the whale rescue we both kind of stopped and saidâ€¦ wow, where have you been? We literally said those words â€œwhere have you beenâ€ because it was that much of a reunion rather than a meeting. It was very powerful and hard to explain. We were together from that moment on.
One of your assistants was telling me before our interview that when the whale rescue was over, Tom flew out to Washington DC just to see you.
Carroll: We agreed to marry before we met in person.
Wow. How long from when you made that first phone call did it take to get to that point?
Carroll: Immediately. I know that sounds crazy. He was in a very senior position being the number 2 person in the Alaska National Guard and I was in the West Wing of the White House. We both had high pressure jobs at different ends of the world. We connected as two people who cared deeply about humanity.
At the time the relations between the United States and the Soviets were â€œtenseâ€â€¦
Carroll: Oh my gosh, beyond tense. Very, very tense. We really didn’t know if the world was going to survive or not. There was a stand-off. Ronald Regan really forged that relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the end of the cold war. And in this particular story, what’s extraordinary was this was the first time a Soviet vessel had entered U.S. waters. This was the first time a military aircraft, this helicopter that my husband took out had ever landed on a Soviet vessel. So now you had an Army chopper on a Soviet ship coming into U.S. waters.
[Bonnie showed me a picture of her husband on the deck of the Soviet Icebreaker. She showed me pictures that Tom had taken inside and on the Soviet Icebreaker.]
Were any of these photographs used as reference materials for the film?
Carroll: Oh yea. I made a copy (of her personal scrapbook), several copies for the production staff. They used this quite a bit for historical data, timelines. This was all real-time (referring to her scrapbook). Memos, briefings memos I did for the President every day that talks about…
[Bonnie proceeded to read one of the memos]
Carroll: The Russians have arrived. They are flying the American flag from both their Icebreakers. Some of them have come to see the whales up close. The Soviet Icebreakers were expected to suspend operations at dusk last evening [she paused as the emotion was overwhelming] but they continued working into the night. By dusk they had gotten 50 feet to 60 feet into the pressure wall, which we didn’t think they could handle.
Knowing that this was a joint rescue mission between the U.S. and the Soviet’s, and he was overseeing this, how did the President react when he started reading your memos?
Carroll: He was very, very much aboutâ€¦he really wanted to take advantage of this as a chance to build the relationship.
[Bonnie showed me a draft of a letter that President Reagan had written to Tom]
How did it work, knowing that you and Tom were going to get married considering you were both in two very different places in the world?
Carroll: The whale rescue happened just days before the Presidential election, when Regan’s term ended. So, our jobs were over. We stayed on through the end of the administration but we were all disbanded at the end.
How did you react when you saw Vinessa Shaw portraying you and did she come to you for research?
Carroll: The toughest thing was being a guest at my own wedding. That was surreal. I’m actually in the film in that scene. That was bittersweet. We became really good friends and have a lot in common. She is an amazing woman, very spiritual, very deep, and very committed to global issuesâ€¦so far beyond her being an accomplished actress.
Do you feel as though the film accurately represents the real-life events you experienced?
Carroll: There were parts that were so meticulous in detail. And then there were some characters that are composite characters of various people and some things were added in to make the film fit into a 2-hour time period. It’s just a wonderful, heartwarming story. The little boy that is now the central character didn’t really exist in the real story, but he brings such a warm character. And I think it adds a lovely touch.
How happy were you that Dermot Mulroney was cast as your husband Tom?
Carroll: Oh my god! [Bonnie was ecstatic and smiling] The best! I could not have asked for anyone better. On every level he is an amazing person, a gentlemen, and he really poured heart and soul into it. I couldn’t have asked for a better actor.
Did he (Mulroney) come to you for research?
Carroll: We spent a lot of time together. I gave him love letters my husband had sent me. And lots of little insights into who Tom was. And he made every effort, to really honor the role.
Unfortunately several years later you lost your husband Tom to an Army plane crash.
Carroll: It was devastating. It really was just completely devastating. And it took a long time to recover. And I relate that kind of to the whale rescue. At first the whales only had that one little hole that was left in the ice when rest of it froze over. They (the whales) would just put their heads up and try to gasp for air. That’s what it feels like. That you’re just alone in this vast unknown and the whole world has frozen you out. Slowly people came around and cut new holes and urged them to the water. And that’s kind of what grief feels like. The people who came around and provided support were the inspiration to create a national organization that does just that, bring support all around.
After your husband had passed away you took some time to research resources that were available for families that had lost someone in the military. How did that aid in the foundation of TAPS?
Carroll: Back in the early 1990′s there was no national support program for military families who were grieving a loss. We had support groups for every condition we could think of, but there wasn’t one for people grieving a military loss. It was a huge gap. And when I first created the organization and then presented it to the Defense Department, interestingly the reaction was more of people arguing that it had always existed. They even looked at our logo and said â€œoh yes, I remember that.â€ People assumed that this had always existed so we had a very easy time getting that up and running and integrated into the military.
How hard was it to get the word out to families that had lost someone in the military about the program?
Carroll: Well, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1997 became a huge advocate. He actually directed the Chief’s of the services to refer all families to our program. So that was a huge leap forward immediately. For a lot of folks when a death occurs of a loved one, they may have a support system in their own family, church, or community. For families where the death wasn’t a high profile loss they may have no one. And yet their son or daughter’s service is no less important. So we honor the life in the service of people who died in the military by caring for people they left behind.
What services do you provide families who contact you?
Carroll: We provide a whole range of emotional services. Peer-based emotional support. Connecting families with other survivors. Community based resources, grief counselors and support groups all over America. Case work assistance, including connections to benefits information and emergency financial assistance. Pro-bono legal help. We have a magazine that’s written by survivors, for survivors. We have national, local and regional gatherings that are going on all the time. So families really become part of this large extended family of others who understand what they are going through and can normalize and validate their grief.
How important is it to reach out to someone who’s experienced loss when going through it yourself?
Carroll: Grief isn’t a mental illness. It isn’t a physical condition you can medicate to make it go away. Grief is the natural reaction to the loss of a loved one from that separation from a person that we care deeply about. It’s like losing a part of yourself.. We see this especially with children losing a dad. And to be able to connect with a person who really gets it…for kids to connect with other kids and speak their same language, or twins to be able to connect with other twins, they really understand they are not alone and what they’re feeling is normal. We can support each other. It really is the only therapeutic healing.