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'A family healing together:' Amid military suicide crisis, TAPS answers the call

Courtesy of Rebecca Morrison

Ian Morrison and Rebecca Morrison, taken at Fort Hood in Texas the day he deployed to Iraq as an Army Apache helicopter pilot. He flew 70 missions in Iraq. In March this year, Ian Morrison committed suicide in Texas at age 26.

The call she placed, and the advice she received, didn’t simply allow Rebecca Morrison to survive one of her worst days. The words she heard, she said, saved her life.

Before a Fort Hood memorial service to honor her husband – an Army chopper pilot who ended his life – Morrison grabbed a scrap of paper from her nightstand, read the scrawled number, and dialed up the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). In that pitch-black moment, she needed answers to two desperate questions. On the other end, Kim Ruocco listened. Seven years earlier, Ruocco had lost her husband, a Marine major, to suicide.

“I can’t even breathe,” Morrison began, through sobs, from her Texas home. “How do you breathe?”

“It will just come,” Ruocco replied from the TAPS office in Arlington, Va.

“How can I ever be happy again?”

“It doesn’t get less painful,” Ruocco told her. “After time, it just gets ... less present.”

Six months later, Morrison, 25, is breathing. She’s also teaching third graders, running, riding her horse, and — Thursday — remembering Ian on what would have been his 27th birthday. She's also speaking at anti-suicide events and launching a suicide support group near Dallas — all of it, she added, because she placed that call. But with one U.S. service member committing suicide every 19 hours, it’s the breathing that Morrison mentions first when asked how TAPS helped her most.

“Once you lose someone to suicide, you are so prone to suicide yourself. I got to that point. If they hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “Every widow I’ve talked to, every family member, has felt that way. You just want to be with that person more than anything. I mean, he was my husband. They’re saving the lives of the survivors.”

The suicide crisis inside the military has, indeed, injected fresh urgency into the larger mission of TAPS, a peer-based, emotional support group for families who have lost active-duty military members overseas or at home. It also has “stretched” the nonprofit’s budget and 53-member staff, said Bonnie Carroll, who founded TAPS in 1994 after her husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, was killed in a plane crash.


Courtesy of Bonnie Carroll

Bonnie Carroll founded TAPS in 1994, two years after her Army husband, Tom, was killed in a plane crash. When Rebecca Morrison called TAPS last April, Bonnie answered the phone.

“We are the alumni association for those who have died in the military. There is no one else that does this,” Carroll said. “Whether it’s a motorcycle crash or a death in combat or a suicide, for the family, it’s the same knock on the door, the same folded flag.

“We’re seeing an increase in the death rate, in the casualty rate, but from the public’s perception: ‘Oh, the war is over and everybody’s home and they’re safe.’ Well, in a skewed way it almost seems like you’re safer in a deployed environment. You’re less likely to die there of a hostile attack than you are to die here.”

Some increasingly sad statistics: During the first nine months of this year, 247 Army troops — including active-duty soldiers, National Guard members and reservists, have committed suicide, according to a Department of Defense report last week. (The Army is the only military branch that issues monthly press statements on suicides). In 2012, the Army suicide rate has climbed over last year, despite myriad anti-suicide initiatives, conferences and medical studies as well as prevention promises and get-help pleas both inside and outside the branch. Meanwhile, within the Navy, Marines and Air Force, another 126 service members combined have taken their lives this year, reports ArmyTimes

As America transitions from a decade of war toward a hopeful peace, TAPS has rarely been busier. The organization, which staffs a 24-hour hotline, is fielding, on average, 111 calls per day, Carroll said. From November 2011 through this past September, TAPS began working with 4,138 new survivors.

In the military community, the TAPS team is considered credible, Carroll said, because each member has lived that moment.

“The traumatic death of an immediate loved one will knock you out and sometimes kill you. You really need to deal with it on a very deep and serious level,” Carroll said. “And the absolute best support — what we’re really finding with our suicide survivors — is that unless they’re talking with another mom found her son after he died by suicide, they’re just not going to talk.”

As its staff now connects, on average, with 376 new survivors per day, TAPS is feeling the urgent need “to definitely do more,” Carroll said.

But on an already-tight budget, seeking extra dollars to meet the crisis requires a delicate, high wire walk worthy of a Wallenda: A nonprofit must project fiscal stability while also demonstrating its growing obligation.

“After 9/11, why did people continue to give to the Red Cross even though it was funded in the billions? It’s because people give to organizations that are financially sound. Which is counterintuitive. You’d think they’d give to the ones that have a more desperate need for the funding,” Carroll said. “So it’s a really tough balance there. We are financially sound. We take every penny and put it toward appropriate programs. We have wonderful partners. But we are constantly searching to meet that need.”

TAPS spends $450,000 per month, Carroll said. In addition to its paid staff and the 24-hour hotline they manage, the group publishes a quarterly magazine and stages dozens of survivor events around the country, including a conference for military-suicide survivors earlier this month in San Diego.

Funding is funneled to the nonprofit from neighborhood bake sales on to large checks from corporate partners, including foundations affiliated with Prudential, New York Life and Hasbro.

“There is no membership — no fees, no dues,” Carroll said. “The cost of admission is the sacrifice of a loved one. And the care they receive is forever and always.”

TAPS further squeezes its budget by leveraging a 1,000-plus legion of volunteers — survivors who are, themselves, at least two years beyond their own loss and trained in how to support the newly bereaved. That network is the bittersweet result of the mounting losses on the home front: as more service members die after returning from war, more of their survivors are volunteering with TAPS.

“That is the holy grail of why this works. It’s a concept of: when you help another person, you continue your own healing,” Carroll said.

Courtesy of Bonnie Carroll

Bonnie and Tom Carroll. They met in Alaska in 1988 during a massive attempt to save three gray whales trapped beneath pack ice.

This is the sacred notion that inspired Carroll to build TAPS. While working for the Reagan White House, she met her Army husband, Tom, on a massive spread of pack ice in Barrow, Alaska, in 1988 amid a globally watched effort — dubbed “Operation Breakthrough” — to free three trapped gray whales. That rescue inspired the 2012 film "Big Miracle."

Tom, portrayed by Dermot Mulroney, and Bonnie, portrayed by Vinessa Shaw, later married. Their wedding — complete with a cake topped by icing-laden whale replicas — was re-enacted in the film. (Their characters had different names in the movie — a choice made by the filmmakers because “Big Miracle” is not a documentary).

“That’s Tom, that’s us. He’s that guy, and I’m that White House girl,” Carroll said.

Four years after the whale rescue, Tom Carroll died along with eight other soldiers in an Army C-12 plane crash in Alaska.

“When Tom was killed, that was my family. Now I have this extraordinary family of tens of thousands of incredible Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation’s freedom,” Bonnie Carroll said. “We’re a family healing together."

Courtesy of Rebecca Morrison

Last weekend, Rebecca Morrison ran the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C. to help raise money and awareness for TAPS - and as part of her own healing following the loss of her husband.

Now, Rebecca Morrison wants to join that family.

With a degree in counseling and the life experience of a survivor, she’s hoping to eventually work with TAPS.

In the meantime, she already has become closely aligned with the nonprofit. On Oct. 21, she ran in the Army Ten Miler — which started and finished at the Pentagon — and helped raise money for TAPS. In June, she spoke as part of a TAPS survivor panel during the annual Department of Defense/Department of Veterans Affairs Suicide Prevention Conference in Washington, D.C. And in July, Kim Ruocco of TAPS asked Morison to share her raw story for a Time magazine cover piece on military suicides titled “One A Day.”

“For me to feel better about this, I have to help other people,” Morrison said.

“Bonnie, Kim and everybody made that possible. Through speaking out, I have been able to heal.”

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