Thomas Johnson was a soldier and a son. He read Chaucer and liked sports, and he loved the Minnesota Twins so much he arranged his military leaves around the home openers.
Johnson had a dimple so endearing it could get him out of trouble, and although he was usually “a sweetheart” who once took his mom to see Peer Gynt, he also struggled with post-traumatic stress following stints in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and he tried twice to take his life before overdosing on drugs.
His mother, Mary Johnson, believes the overdose was an accident for two reasons: He was finally seeing progress on his medical disability claim, and he didn’t make sure someone was taking care of his dog, something he had done before previous suicide attempts. He always looked out for his dog.
Specialist Thomas Johnson was 26 when he died in 2013 in New Hampshire.
I never would have learned about Tom Johnson if not for his mother’s quiet, but very public acts. For the past couple of months, she has laid a small bouquet of flowers nearly every day in the atrium of the Hennepin County Government Center alongside a rectangular reflecting pool and fountain. Each bouquet was attached to a tag with her son’s name, a ribbon, and a gold star.
The flowers were noticed by people who work in the building, and reports of her gesture were passed along to me. For most of the people visiting the building, the flowers were a mystery, and I wrote about it last week. The bouquets were the only response Mary could think of to a gallery tribute to the active duty soldiers and veterans who have taken their own lives, an average of 22 a day nationwide. The project, which ended Friday, included photographs of 22 everyday items, many of them taken by people affected by the suicide of a vet.
Mary appreciated the fact that veterans were being honored, but it didn’t make her life any easier. She works in the building and passed the fountain every day, the 22 lilies and the small signs alerting people to the gallery exhibit.
“It took me about a week to figure out why I was getting depressed each night,” said Mary. “I had to walk past the display as I left work. I was to the point of not wanting to come into work. Then, I realized that it would be in place for more than two months. I wasn’t sure how I would manage. Each time I walked past the pink flowers in the fountain was a dagger in my heart, reminding me that I had lost my son.”
On the advice of friends from the Blue Star Mothers of America, Mary began writing the cards to Tom and putting them by the fountain as she said a small prayer to him. It seemed to help.
Sometimes the flowers were left as they were. Some were collected and kept by Diana Houston of the county’s communication department. No one ever asked Mary about the flowers, or spoke to her.
“My favorite story was one evening as I was exiting the building, I saw someone walking through the [lobby] and they picked up the flower and were about to walk away with it,” Mary said. “They read the tag and put it back down. I was so impressed.”
Mary said Tom was a “high-energy child” who made some bad choices as a teen. After many conversations with his mom about his future, Tom said, “Mom, I need some structure in my life.” He joined the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and was deployed to Iraq for 15 months from 2007-2008. He participated in eight named missions and 300 combat patrols and drove trucks over 3,000 miles.
Mary was relieved when she heard her son was driving the bigger trucks after driving a Hummer. “Mom,” he said. “Bigger trucks mean bigger bombs.”
“The military was particularly good for him,” Mary said. ”The 101st has such pride. He thrived until he didn’t.”
Tom got married impulsively. The marriage fell apart when they were assigned to Guantanamo Bay. He re-enlisted and ended up in a small office in New Hampshire, far from the support of fellow soldiers. He had been seeing a counselor for post-traumatic stress, “though he never said the words out loud,” Mary said.
After we spoke this week, Mary sent me a note, fearing she hadn’t painted a full picture of her son.
“I never told you what a wonderful person Tom was,” she wrote. “He and I were very close. We frequently sent each other text messages. He was a complex person, like we all are. He was kind to people and animals. He was a sweetheart as well as a pain in the butt. (I’m his mom, so I can say that!)”
“I think it’s wonderful people are trying to bring awareness to the high number of suicides by our military members and veterans,” Mary said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, how sad. We need to do something about it.’ I want to personalize it. They were real people. Loved by family and friends. I think the impact is much greater when you hear the story about a specific person.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin