From Losses to Legacies: Surviving Son Carries Father’s Legacy Through VA Career and Lasting Bond with TAPS

Author: Kristi Stolzenberg

Children could teach us a thing or two about life — the significance of a seemingly insignificant moment and the people and things that truly matter. Garrett Schmidt, the proud surviving son of U.S. Army National Guard Sergeant Michael Joseph Schmidt, would challenge that we could learn even more from children grieving the loss of a parent because they haven’t just lost someone special, they’ve lost the center of their small universe — someone they’ve loved their whole lives, someone they were completely dependent on, someone they expected to have much more time with. And, a child who knows what it feels like to lose all of this knows plenty about loving and living fully and cherishing the memories they were able to make with their parent in the all-too-brief time they had them.

Garrett Schmidt at 2024 TAPS Honor Guard Gala

At age 7, Garrett had only happy memories of his dad. “He prioritized having fun. I don’t have any negative memories of him. And, perhaps that’s the coolest thing ever for a kid in that sense.” Mike’s military career called him away from home frequently, but, in Garrett’s mind, that only added to his dad’s heroic persona. So, when Garrett’s mom explained to him that his dad died, he couldn’t believe it — not his dad, his dad was untouchable. But the hard truth was that his untouchable, fun-loving dad was gone, and his life forever changed. 

What Garrett couldn’t possibly see then, through his grief, is the vibrant, meaningful life he has now — he’s a college graduate, a dedicated employee at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a loving husband to his wife, Amanda, and a proud, fun-loving dad to his own son, Tanner, and daughter, McKenna. Though they never met “Grandpa Mike,” Garrett ensures they know him through photos and stories about his service, his laugh, and their shared love for Ninja Turtles.

Garrett talks about his dad today from a place of pride, not pain, thanks in large part to the healing he found through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). He proudly carries his father’s legacy forward through his own service path at the VA, through his dedication to his family, and to preserving his dad’s memory by sharing stories of him any chance he gets. Garrett will also forever be part of the TAPS legacy because his dad perished in the same plane crash that took the life of Brigadier General Tom Carroll — TAPS President and Founder Bonnie Carroll’s husband — and six other soldiers. It was from this tragedy that TAPS was born.

Garrett Schmidt and Bonnie Carroll at 2024 TAPS Honor Guard Gala

Garrett Schmidt on stage at 2024 TAPS Honor Guard Gala

“Garrett’s mother brought him to TAPS’ first attempt at a survivor seminar. He was the only child,” shared Bonnie Carroll. “We knew there had to be others, and there were.” Today, TAPS embraces thousands of surviving children annually, empowering them to honor their fallen heroes, heal, grow, and find their smile again with surviving kids just like them. TAPS Good Grief Camp brings healing to surviving children today thanks to Bonnie’s vision and because Garrett was brave enough to be the first child to face his grief with TAPS so many years ago.

“The healing finally started for real at that first seminar,” Garrett shared. “It’s an incredible feeling not to feel alone.” And, thanks to TAPS and the family and friends who rallied behind Garrett, his life has been driven not by the loss of his dad, but by his commitment to continuing his dad’s legacy of service and living and loving fully. 

Legacies Live On Stories

Read additional Legacies Live On Stories, stories of resilience, healing, and transformation from survivors who have journeyed through grief with us over the last three decades. They embody the essence of TAPS — a community that comes together to uplift, empower, and honor the memory of our fallen heroes.

Kristi Stolzenberg is TAPS Magazine and Special Projects Editor.

Photos are courtesy of TAPS Archives.