I met Jason at the Newark Airport in May 2005. I was arriving from Northwest Arkansas to help Tom celebrate graduation from West Point and Jason had driven over from the Academy to meet his family just arriving from Mississippi and waiting for their luggage at the carousel next to mine. We both recognized each other instantly.
"Hi. I'm Jason."
"I know who you are! I'm Sarah."
We hugged. And chatted like we had known each other for years. Because in some ways, we had. Tom had posted many a photo and story about Jason on his blog over the years they'd known each other in school and – knowing Tom and his propensity for storytelling – I'm guessing my name may have come up at least a few times. Now here we were, finally meeting in person.
Tom and Jason were great friends through school. Best friends. Two guys who had both grown up with nothing but sisters — now had a brother. They went skydiving together. They got into trouble together. They kept in close touch as they graduated and moved on to their careers and later deployments.
And when I got the worst news of my life, and traveled home to be with my family during that hard week of memorial services, funeral and burial – Jason was there. He loyally stood by my family – his family – at our worst. He knew that Tom would have done the same for him. There was no doubt in his mind where he belonged that week. He bravely spoke at Tom's funeral, words so genuine and loving — I still marvel at the strength he had to say them.
My sisters and I were so grateful to have Jason there that week – a solid hug, an easy smile, a truly devoted friend. And as if there were any doubt Tom and Jason were kindred spirits – we did our fair share of laughing that week. We told stories, we shared pictures, and Jason taught me to play paper football at my parents' kitchen table.
Here's the entire family at West Point for Tom's burial services in October 2007. Left to right: Dad, Laura, Mom, Jason, Erika, Becky, Sarah, Jeff.
And the last time Jason and Tom saw each other, in Iraq a few months before he was killed.
Jason is currently serving his second deployment – this time in Afghanistan. He's away from his wife Jessica and their three kiddos – Carter, Katie, and baby Tom – and I've been thinking about him a lot this week. It's Thanksgiving, right? And I can't think of a better time to remember and thank people like Jason who spend their lives in service – whether that service is to the military and this country or to my family when we needed it most.
I twisted his arm and made him give me suggestions of things he and his guys could use over there – in case anyone is interested in sending a package in time for the holidays.
- They can always use the necessities like shampoo — miniatures and small bottles are best. Or hand sanitizer, toothpaste, or batteries.
- Food: chocolates, Little Debbie cakes, beef jerky, granola bars, gum, any other snack food.
- For fun: books/magazines — anything you may have already read and could pass on, CDs/DVDs.
CPT Jason Hillman
25th Signal Battalion
APO AE 09320
And of course an email hello will do – any day of the week. firstname.lastname@example.org
Jason, I'm thankful for you.