They call it the Hero’s Journey, this theory of storytelling taught in high-dollar workshops for writers and those longing to become one. It’s the notion that every story follows the same general pattern: Person confronted with a quest/challenge. Person accepts challenge, faces overwhelming odds, successfully meets their quest after defeating all dragons, and comes out on the other side a better person – A Hero.
For me, though, the Hero’s Journey is about far more than just storytelling.
It’s about men like Tom Jones.
I met Lt.Col. Tom Jones years ago while I was on a quest of my own. I had flown to Washington D.C. with a list of names in hand. It was a list I had found after a couple of years of research into my own father’s death in Vietnam. With the help of then Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), I had been able to obtain my father’s death records and after action reports from the National Archives. Among those records was a list of names of men who had deployed with my father from Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks.
I didn’t recognize any of the names. It’s not surprising that I didn’t know any of the men given I had been barely nine years old when Daddy deployed. And nine years and a few months older when he came home via a casket. His body bloated and bruised and blued.
There was a reunion of the 25th Infantry Division, the unit my father deployed with, during the Veterans Day events in DC. I took that list with me into a ballroom at that DC hotel, hoping like heck I would be able to track down at least one of the men who served alongside my father. Someone who could look me in the eyes and tell me exactly what happened that day in July 1966, when Daddy died. I knew the story the Army had told us back in 1966 wasn’t true. I just didn’t know then what the truth was.
I walked into that ballroom, moved among those towering soldiers of a war in which there was never any peace for anyone, my palms sweaty, my heart pounding. I had no idea how to approach a veteran then, much less how to enlist their help in tracking down men who may or may not want to speak to me about my dead father.
I was on a quest but instead of facing dragons that sought to slay me, I encountered nothing but kindnesses extended to me by Golden Dragons. Tom Jones was among that crowd that night. Mike Coale, of New Jersey, introduced us. Coale and Jones took my quest and made it their own. They did everything they could to help me find the men who served alongside my dad.
That’s the thing about a Hero’s Journey that folks rarely talk about – Heroes never accomplish anything of worth in isolation. The entire point of becoming a hero is to help others. What makes a hero a hero isn’t their ability to overcome all odds. What makes a hero a hero is that they defeat all odds on behalf of others. Any quest is only of merit when it serves another person.
Tom Jones was all about serving others.
We exchanged contact information that night, Tom Jones and I did. Even yet today, I can go to my email account and type in his email and a list of exchanges we’ve had dating back over a decade will pull up. Each one deals with one of two things – storytelling and veterans.
Tom had quests of his own he was undertaking. He was working on a book about the Bastard Brigade of the 25th Infantry, working to ensure that the stories of other veterans would be remembered. There are memorials at Schofield, at Fort Benning, and in other places that would not exist today had it not been for the tireless efforts of Tom Jones.
Like every hero on a quest, Tom never took a break from his missions. Every time he was successful in getting another memorial built, Tom would send me photos and a detailed account of the ceremony surrounding the unveiling. He was particularly proud of making sure that women veterans were included in the memorials. Not only did he make it his quest to memorialize fallen soldiers, he worked along with a pastor in his home state of Ohio to establish a program of spiritual direction for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Above all else, Tom was an advocate for veterans, those fallen and those who continue to suffer, and their families. Given his commitment to honoring those harmed by war and its aftermath, it is particularly hurtful that what took Tom’s life was an Agent Orange induced cancer.
Tom Jones died on 12/21/17.
When my mother died on 12/26/12, Tom sat down at his computer and sent me the following note: