(Click on photos to increase their size.)
By Askold Krushelnycky
One Ukrainian came to America’s capital over the Memorial Day weekend in May to learn about how Ukraine can do a better job honoring soldiers killed in combat and helping their survivors.
Helping survivors is where a U.S. group called TAPS — Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — comes in. And its members are willing to share their experience with Ukraine, now suffering from Russia’s war since 2014, a conflict that has killed 10,500 Ukrainians and dismembered the nation.
Ukrainian Oleksii Lipiridi, an adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry for Social Policy, spent four days at this year’s TAPS seminar, which has been held annually for 24 years in Arlington, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
TAPS founder and president, Bonnie Carroll, is an air force reserve major whose husband, a U.S. Army general, was killed in 1992.
She told the Kyiv Post that she discovered the U.S. government has a good system for helping bereaved families in the immediate aftermath of their loss so that funerals go smoothly and people are made aware of financial and other benefits. However, beset by grief herself, she was surprised that there was no structured help from the government to help people cope with the emotional trauma of losing a spouse, child or sibling.
So if nobody was providing that service, Carroll decided she would do so and the TAPS organization was born in 1994.
Bonnie Carroll and Oleksii Lipiridi
It has since grown to embrace 75,000 members and inspired sister groups in 23 other countries; Ukraine is set to become the 24th.
One of Carroll’s core ideas is that only people who have had loved ones serving in the military taken from them can really understand what others like them are going through.
TAPS personnel who work with bereaved people have all lost someone in the military. The 120 volunteers comprising TAPS’ Survivor Care Team reach out to bereaved military family members, whose names and contact details are provided by the U.S. Department of Defense almost as soon as a fatal military casualty occurs.
Some already have experience as doctors, therapists, teachers and religious pastors and have acquired skills in working sensitively with people who are experiencing trauma and loss. TAPS also has short training courses to help people learn how to better console grief-stricken families.
The care team members then match up bereaved families with others in the local area. For example, a young bereaved woman with two children would be introduced to another woman with two children of a similar age. Carroll said that most introduced that way have remained long-term friends and continue to help one another in various practical as well as emotional ways.
Over the May 28 Memorial Day weekend, more than 2000 TAPS “survivors” from across the U.S. attended seminars about grief, the aftermath of loss and rebuilding their lives. There were also courses for those who wanted to become care team volunteers. Many high-ranking military officers and senior politicians visited the seminar to thank TAPS for its work. In 2015 President Barrack Obama presented Carroll with the the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in recognition of TAPS' work.
Hundreds of children attended and TAPS held a “Good Grief Camp” for them with games and crafts activities. Many helping out had lost a military parent when they themselves were kids.
Carroll said that TAPS is a nongovernmental organization funded by private donations and, while independent of the government, it works closely with the Department of Defense and other agencies involved with veterans’ affairs.
The US State Department put her in touch with Ukraine in 2014, the start of Russia’s war with the invasion of the Crimean peninsula and the eastern Donbas. But it wasn’t until March this year she first traveled to Kyiv talk with bereaved family members and government officials involved in veterans’ issues.
That was when Carroll and Lipiridi met.
Carroll said that, after some initial skeptical reactions, both the families of fallen service people and officials became enthusiastic about creating a Ukrainian version of TAPS.
Lipiridi witnessed war in Ukraine in 2014 as one of the volunteers delivering supplies to the ill-equipped fighters at the front lines, many of whom initially lacked basics such as uniforms, boots, food and medicines.
In 2015, he joined Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, organizing supplies to the front lines, which kept him visiting the trenches for the next two years and developing close connections with the fighters and learning about their families’ needs.
Lipiridi said in 2015 Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko issued instructions that each of Ukraine’s oblasts should set up centers to help veterans and their families with their needs.
Lipiridi helped organize these and envisages they will work closely with a TAPS-type organization. But he insists the new network must be a nongovernmental organization, to specifically address the needs of relatives of Ukraine’s 4,000 dead soldiers, including the many who have committed suicide.
“Ukrainian community organizations," he said, "have not yet developed to the same extent as in America. We have groups trying to look after 10, 20, 50, perhaps 100 veterans’ families. But not like TAPS with 75,000 members.”
He said over the four days he spent at the TAPS conference he was impressed by the easy-going manner in which both adults and children struck up conversations with other members they had never met before.
“I saw the relationships between the people at the conference and the continuity as those who lost loved ones as kids use their experience to comfort children who lost parents recently. I recognized that TAPS works like a family – it behaves as a real family. And I want Ukraine to have such a family. Ukrainian people are generous and good. We have the wherewithal to create the sort of system that Bonnie started 24 years ago. The main question is how to work in practice. It’s necessary to publicize this among the bereaved families and to enlist their support to help one another – because only together can we move forward in order to educate our children, foster patriotism, develop respect for veterans and the families of those who have died.”
Along with thousands of others, Lipiridi visited Arlington Cemetery, close to the seminar venue, on the U.S. visit. People attended ceremonies or just wandered among the trim, white markers over the graves of some 420,000 veterans. The first dated from America’s own 1861-65 Civil War. Other conflicts included World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lipiridi said Arlington Cemetery symbolizes a tradition of respect for veterans and their families, developed and ingrained over many years. He said that a Ukrainian equivalent tradition might be a long way off, he hopes that he and Carroll can swiftly set up a TAPS-type organization in Ukraine. The two are planning to bring TAPS staff to Ukraine to collaborate with locals within the next months.
“There is an understanding on the part of Bonnie and our side that TAPS will be an essential part of how Ukraine addresses the needs of our own bereaved military families. And we are working to bring that about as soon as possible,” he said.
He said that whereas a Ukrainian equivalent of such an imposing resting place for the country’s military heroes might be a long way away, he and Carroll hope to swiftly get a TAPS-type organization working in Ukraine. The two are planning to bring TAPS staff over to Ukraine collaborate with locals within the next months.
“The there is an understanding on the part of Bonnie (Carroll) and our side that TAPS will be an essential part of how Ukraine addresses the needs of our own bereaved military families. And we are working to bring that about as soon as possible,” he said.
Askold Krushelnycky became the Kyiv Post’s Washington, D.C. correspondent in May 2018. He has been a journalist for 40 years, mainly with British newspapers starting in 1978. During the 1990s, he reported in Europe on the fall of communism, political transformations and conflicts, including the Balkans. From 1997 to 2011, he was based in Moscow, but also served as chief editor of the Kyiv Post in 1998. He then went to Prague. He was assistant foreign editor at The Sunday Times of London and became that newspaper’s South Asia correspondent, based in New Delhi, to cover India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. He worked frequently in the Middle East. In 2006, his book “An Orange Revolution – A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History,” was published by Random House/Harvill Secker. He was born in London. His parents were World War II refugees from Ukraine. He received a bachelor’s degree in industrial chemistry. In 2011, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. He became a U.S. citizen in 2016.