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'Big Miracle' tells love story of TAPS founder

WASHINGTON — As founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Bonnie Carroll is best known for becoming a champion for bereaved military families after her husband was killed in a 1992 crash of an Army C-12 transport plane in Alaska.

But a new movie coming out next month has shifted the focus to one of the happiest times in her life: the whirlwind romance with the National Guard colonel she married.

The film, “Big Miracle,” premiered Wednesday night in Washington with hundreds of TAPS families in the audience. It tells the story of three whales who were trapped in the ice near Alaska in 1988 and the efforts to save them.

Carroll was working at the time as a staffer in the Reagan White House, coordinating with the Alaska National Guard. She spoke often with then-Col. Tom Carroll.

In the movie, the character based on Bonnie — who is called Kelly in the film — flies to Alaska and meets Tom in person. The two marry soon after.

“It’s one of my favorite story lines in the movie,” said Drew Barrymore, who plays the Greenpeace activist who rallied to save the whales. “Then I found out that it was true and I was so excited.”

It is an extraordinary love story, although there were minor embellishments. In real life, Bonnie never left Washington; she and Tom fell in love over the phone.

The screenwriters said they were nervous about some of the liberties they took with Tom’s story and how Bonnie would react.  In real life, Tom was very supportive of asking the Soviets for help to save the whales during the height of the Cold War, but in the movie he’s strongly against it. They were also worried about the introductory scene of Tom lifting weights with “I Hate Myself for Loving You” blasting in the background. They feared Carroll might see it as portraying him as a meathead, but she was delighted with it.

She was on set in Alaska and got to know Vinessa Shaw, who plays her in the movie. The portrayal has at least one piece of entire authenticity: Shaw wears a fur hat and black Prada jacket of Carroll’s from that time period.

The movie is based on a book written about the event, which was sold to the movie studio more than 20 years ago, back when Tom Carroll was still alive.

Bonnie Carroll, who founded TAPS in 1994, said at the red carpet before the premiere that she was sad her husband didn’t get to see the movie come to fruition, but in light of what happened, seeing her husband portrayed on the big screen is a “precious gift on a very, very personal level,” she said.

The TAPS families she deals so closely with know her story of being a widow, she said, and “now they get to meet my husband.”

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