For Nicki and Brian “Bubba” Bunting, it was just “meant to be”— the pair met in sixth grade and their families were close. Bubba went off to West Point following high school while Nicki attended college.
After a tour in Korea, Bubba reconnected with Nicki when he was back in town, and the two “just hit it right off.”
The pair married, and in 2008 they brought a bundle of joy, Connor, into the world.
Tragically, Bubba was killed on February 24, 2009 during his first combat tour in Afghanistan.
Five days later, Nicki learned that she was pregnant with their second child.
It was proof that miracles can happen, even in the darkest of times, but along with it came that stark reality that her second child — a son, Cooper — would never know his father.
Thankfully, Nicki had help. Along with her family and Bubba’s family, she had another support system, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). TAPS was founded in 1994 by Bonnie Carroll after she lost her husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, in an Army C-12 plane crash.
Like many other military spouses, it was Nicki’s saving grace.
“I got involved with TAPS almost immediately,” she tells Independent Journal. “They reached out to me and slowly but surely I made my way with them.”
She quickly bonded with others in the organization, and through TAPS she learned that it was okay to live again, it was okay to smile.
TAPS has been an integral part of Connor and Cooper’s lives as well. Events, such as the Tiny Heroes Winter Wonderland event, provide the boys with a reminder that they are surrounded by people who love them.
This was made especially evident to Nicki at last year’s Winter Wonderland event.
As she walked into the “toy shop,” which is set up to provide TAPS children with gifts from Toys for Tots, Nicki stopped dead in her tracks.
“I started crying because every year I take my kids — we go shopping — and we get gifts and we bring them to the fire station for Toys for Tots,” she explains. “Never in a million years did I think that my kids would be the recipient of such gifts.”
She admits that Connor and Cooper weren’t in need of more toys — they have thousands of them — but these were so much more than just toys. They were a source of comfort, something to look towards during tough times.
Later, when they were at home, this became even more clear.
“Connor was upset and crying and he rifled through his billion stuffed animals and he went and he got this one bear and I was like, ‘oh, I get it now.’ It has memories with it, that he is surrounded by love and support.”
As her children grow older, she continues to face challenges.
They are aware of what they are missing out on by not having their dad, and they often times come home from school defeated. But despite these obstacles, Nicki, Connor, and Cooper know that they will always have TAPS. And with TAPS supporting them, they will be okay.
“It makes my life a lot easier, knowing that my kids are going to be okay,” Nicki says.