The Legacy Lives On

Author: Kristi Stolzenberg

Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann is in her element walking the halls of Congress. The echoes of advocacy, the rushed click­ clack of heels on the marble floors, and the hush that sweeps the room as a committee hearing comes to order - she answers it all with a steady hand. For Ashlynne, these are the sounds of progress for military and veteran survivors - progress she personally knows is necessary, progress that became her why years ago, and progress she will continue to pursue on behalf of her fellow military and veteran survivors and those who will one day walk their path. 

On January 30, 2024, Ashlynne sat shoulder­ to-shoulder with fellow witnesses before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs as she opened her oral testimony, "I am the Gold Star Daughter of United States Army Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Haycock, who died while training to deploy in 2002, and Air Force Veteran Nichole Haycock, who died by suicide in 2011. I personally understand how life-changing our VA benefits are to our surviving families." 

With her characteristic confidence, Ashlynne proceeded to outline obstacles that often lie between a surviving family and the benefits they earned when their loved one, who proudly volunteered to serve this nation, died. 

Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann testifying before Congress

Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann with fellow witnesses before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

The strength of the four witnesses — including Ashlynne, on behalf of TAPS — was apparent to everyone present. Ranking Member Takano captured the sentiment in this statement to the witness panel, "Your resilience is inspiring, and I'm also inspired by your courage. You're all leaders in your own way — making meaning out of the loss of your loved one by taking up this cause." 

This moment — acting as a voice for the survivor community after persevering through the losses of both of her parents and being truly heard by lawmakers and citizens — would be an accomplished ending to Ashlynne's story of finding meaning after loss, but she has no plans to slow her pace. This moment, instead, could make for a dramatic beginning to her journey after loss, but she found her footing years earlier thanks to TAPS. No, this moment is somewhere in the middle of Ashlynne's story. From her early days as a Good Grief Camper to becoming a respected advocate for survivors on Capitol Hill,  Ashlynne embodies the precious task of being the living legacy for both her father and mother, and somewhere along the way, she began to weave a legacy for the survivor community that is all her own.


Finding Her Place Living the Legacy

Ashlynne was just 10 years old when her father died on April 12, 2002. By Memorial Day weekend the following month, she reluctantly showed up to her first TAPS Good Grief Camp, only after getting her mom to agree that if she and her brothers truly hated it, they would never have to go back. 

She didn't hate it. 

She admitted later that Good Grief Camp was one of the best things to happen to her, "For the first time since my dad died, I was not the 'weird kid with the dead dad.’ I was normal. No one looked at me like I was crazy; no one avoided me because they didn't know what to say.” 

Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann at TAPS Good Grief Camp

Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann at TAPS Good Grief Camp

Ashlynne faced her new title of surviving daughter with the strength she drew from her new TAPS tribe, and she returned home from that first healing weekend able to honor the memory of her father — the man who danced in the kitchen, served 17 years in the military, ensured she knew all 50 states before kindergarten, and taught her to prioritize education. With TAPS, she learned to grow with grief in one hand and gratitude in the other.


Embracing Her Legacy

In the time between her first Good Grief Camp in 2002 to graduating high school in 2009, Ashlynne and her family were regulars at TAPS events. But, by age 15 or 16, Ashlynne — ever her father's daughter with a heart for service — was anxious to give back to the organization that had given her so much. She recalled begging Bonnie Carroll, TAPS Founder and President, to be a mentor to young Good Grief Campers. After graduating high school, she got that chance, “Mentoring young survivors was incredibly healing for both parties,” Ashlynne shared, “It was the natural next step in healing — passing on that support TAPS showed me the first time I walked into camp and every day since.” 

Carrying what she'd learned from her dad, Ashlynne continued to learn from her mother, Nichole, the importance of making the places and processes around her better than she found them. Through navigating her own survivor benefits, Nichole assumed, like so many surviving spouses, that her family would be taken care of financially if something ever happened to Jeffrey. But, as Ashlynne shared in a 2019 op-ed for The Oklahoman, the “Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs of $1,200 per month [was] nowhere close to my dad's salary…” To supplement this, Nichole was also eligible to receive Jeffrey's retirement benefits and Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP). “Initially,” Ashlynne went on to write, “my mom was under the impression we would receive both the DIC and SBP payments, only to learn later that for every dollar we received in DIC, we [lost] a dollar in SBP.” This has long been referred to as the Widow's Tax within the survivor community. Ashlynne's mom was not about to leave this for the next family to deal with. She leaned in, learned, and advocated on Capitol Hill with Ashlynne in tow. 

Today, Ashlynne points to this time in her life as the beginning of her love for policy and advocacy — walking the halls of the Capitol alongside her mom, fighting for survivor benefits. The paths of higher education, a nod to her dad's legacy, and advocacy, a passion ignited alongside her mom, met in D.C. when Ashlynne was accepted at American University in 2009. 

Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann High School Graduation Family photo

Nichole Haycock, Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann and Bonnie Carroll

Thriving in college and at TAPS — no doubt making her father proud by balancing education and service, Ashlynne recalled a bittersweet TAPS moment from 2011 when she and her mom dressed up to attend the TAPS Honor Guard Gala. They proudly honored her father that night, but it was the last time Ashlynne saw her mom. Two weeks later, Nichole — Air Force veteran, loving mother of three, and fierce champion for survivor benefits died by suicide. Ashlynne, by then a college sophomore, faced another sudden, heartbreaking loss and found herself navigating the murky waters of adulthood, survivor benefits, and college expenses on her own.

Fearing she would have to drop out of college, she did what her mother had always done when she needed support, she called Bonnie.


The Legacy Lives On

Ashlynne did, indeed, graduate on time and debt-free — thanks to TAPS and her own drive to succeed. But, she saw firsthand the need for a singular resource for survivors seeking higher education funding and benefits. So, Ashlynne returned to TAPS — political science degree in hand — to do just as she'd seen her mother do anytime she met something that needed fixing: she fixed it. 

As a member of the TAPS staff, Ashlynne researched and compiled all the options for students. Her research built the TAPS education portal from the ground up, and she worked directly with the VA, states, and private organizations to maximize inclusivity for the survivor community. What began as a postgraduate research effort in 2013 bloomed into what is now TAPS Education Support Services, which in the last five years alone identified $1.6 billion in education funding for survivors. Founding TAPS Education Support Services is one of Aslynne's proudest accomplishments for the survivor community — a well-balanced tribute to the priorities instilled in her by both her father and mother.

Ashlynne at TAPS Good Grief Camp Graduation

Ashlynne and TAPS Good Grief Campers

Ashlynne and Brother Westin

Ashlynne looking at photos of parents

The other achievement Ashlynne looks back on as one of her proudest was her part in the 2019 elimination of the Widow's Tax. Her love for advocacy was rooted in eliminating this legislation. Looking back, so much of her life stemmed from walking the halls of the Capitol with her mom, advocating for change. It lit a spark in Ashlynne to make a career out of advocating for military and veteran survivors, and - after the death of her mom - she instinctively picked up where her mom left off and joined TAPS at the front of the charge fighting for the elimination of the Widow's Tax. "My mom poured so much time and energy into ending the Widow's Tax. It was a 20-year battle, and while she never got to see it through, I wanted to personally continue that fight in her memory,” Ashlynne shared. 

Today, Ashlynne continues to fight for survivors on the Hill as the Deputy Director of Government and Legislative Affairs for TAPS; she's been an integral part of landmark legislation, including the elimination of the Widow's Tax, passing the Forever GI Bill, and the ongoing appeal to pass the Love Lives On Act. Giving back to the survivor community that held her after the loss of her father and empowered her after the loss of her mother has become more than fulfilling her parents' legacies. It's become a legacy all her own. It is her ongoing passion to honor all surviving families equally and leave the survivor community better than she found it.

Honoring Service in Action

TAPS is proud to award Deputy Director of TAPS Government and Legislative Affairs Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann with the 2024 Senator Ted Stevens Leadership Award. She is not only the living legacy of her father and mother; she exemplifies the TAPS mission. Through her shining example and service to the survivor community, she carries her own legacy forward, forever changing the landscape of life after loss.

Kristi Stolzenberg is TAPS Magazine and Special Projects Editor.

Photos are courtesy of Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann and TAPS Archives.