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The goal of the River to River series "Leaving Afghanistan" is to understand a dimension of the war's impact by focusing on the individual experiences of Iowans who have done all types of work in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

'His Military Career Was A Small Part Of What Made Him A Great Man' — Remembering Jon Tumilson

Jon cover image.jpg
Courtesy of Joy Tumilson McMeekan
Jon Tumilson playing in the snow with his niece Sydney McMeekan in November 2010. Tumilson's sister Joy Tumilson McMeekan said that this photo represents who Jon was, "So full of adventure. So full of life," said McMeekan. "And just encouraging those around him and spending time with family."

On August 6, 2011, Chief Petty Officer and Navy Seal Jon Tumilson of Rockford was deployed in Afghanistan. Tumilson and his special forces team heard that Army Rangers were pinned down and under fire.

Tumilson, along with 29 other service members, boarded a Chinook helicopter to provide backup to the Army Rangers. Soon after take off, an RPG from enemy forces hit the helicopter. Everyone on board was killed instantly. It became one of the deadliest attacks on U.S. forces during the war in Afghanistan.

"If somebody would have told Jon that day when he stepped foot on that helicopter that he wasn't coming back, I know without a doubt he would have gone without question, because he loved what he did and he believed in the cause that he was fighting for," said Joy Tumilson McMeekan, Jon's sister.

As part of River to River's Leaving Afghanistan series, Ben Kieffer spoke with McMeekan about Tumilson's life, his sacrifice and the legacy he left with the Rockford community and his family.

Jon Combat photo.jpg
Courtesy of Joy Tumilson McMeekan
Navy SEAL and Rockford native Jon Tumilson during his deployment to Afghanistan 2009-2010.

How Jon Discovered The Navy SEALs

"Growing up, he was the youngest of three, the only boy in our family. And he was full of adventure, probably that annoying little brother that every girl hates when she was growing up. But then later in life, he became one of my closest and dearest friends. But really, his drive came from … he didn't like to read. And so my mom challenged him that if he found a book that was of interest to him, she would buy him any book that he wanted, as long as, it was something clean and nothing grotesque, and that she wanted him to find something of interest to him to start to enjoy reading. And so he was very involved in martial arts and had a friend that was actually a neurosurgeon that my parents were friends with. And so he reached out to him and he recommended that a book by Richard Marcinko, which, Richard Marcinko, a lot of people will say is the founder of the Navy SEALs. And so my mom bought that book for him and he read it. I don't think he hardly put it down at all. And from that moment on, at about the age of 12 or 13, he told everybody he was going to be a Navy SEAL someday.”

Jon running.jpg
Courtesy of Joy Tumilson McMeekan
Jon Tumilson on a run. This photo was the inspiration for the statue erected of him in the Fossil and Prairie Park Preserve in Rockford. According to Tumilson's sister Joy, running was his therapy.

Jon’s Drive To Become A Navy SEAL

“For him, becoming a Navy SEAL was not the easiest. He signed up for the Navy with the intention of going to BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training ) and becoming a SEAL, and thought it was in his papers, and quickly discovered, after he got through basic, that that was not the case. And so he had a lot of hurdles and a lot of obstacles along the way. And he just never let it discourage him. He thought, ‘Okay, you're not going to let me through that way, then I'm going to try this way.’ And he just he never got bitter. He just always stayed positive ... I mean, my parents both had instilled in all of us kids very strong work ethics. And I suppose that came through. But he was just determined, and had a lot of people along the way that told him they didn't think he would ever make it. They thought he was too nice of a guy to be a SEAL. And probably one of my favorite stories is one of my mom's good friends, when he left for the Navy, she said to my mom, she said, ‘I hope they never take away Jon's sensitivity.’ And it's amazing to me that he could be such an elite warrior. But yet he stayed so true to who he was up until his death. And he still did have, very much, that sensitive side. A lot of his brothers and fellow SEALs told us stories about how he was the uniter on the team. He was the one that in his friend group with anybody who had a disagreement, Jon was always the one that said, 'hey, come on, you know, don't stay mad at each other, let's work this out.' And so he just, he just stayed true to who he was and just never gave up.”

Dog image.jpg
Courtesy of Joy Tumilson McMeekan
Jon Tumilson and his dog Hawkeye at a beach.

On The Secrecy Of Jon’s Deployments

“Yeah, he didn't really share a lot with us. I remember one time it was one of his first or second deployments. I think it was his second deployment to Iraq. And I was watching the news one night and I was like, 'that's Jon!' I mean, I saw him go across the screen and he was walking with one of the leaders of Iraq at that time. And the next time he called, I was like, 'Jon, I saw you on the news. And it looks like you're protecting ...' [whoever it was. I can't remember at the time.] And he's like, 'no, no, that wasn't us.' And I said, 'no, I swear it was you.' And he kind of gave me some code language like, well, you know what you saw, but I'm telling you, that wasn't us. And so I think that was his way of saying, 'yeah, that was me, but it shouldn't have been on TV.' So, yeah, he didn't really talk about it a lot.

“I remember one of his deployments, I believe it was to Iraq. He earned a Bronze Star with Valor. And he called my mom and said, 'hey, you're going to be getting notification of an award I received. It's really not a big deal, but just wanted to let you know to be watching for it.' And it was his, the letter telling us of what he did. And we laughed because, I mean, he was on a sniper mission. He was trained as a sniper and he was on a sniper mission. They were taking heavy gunfire and they were waiting for the airstrikes to come in so they could get out and the airstrikes didn't come and didn't come. And as Jon was having bullets whiz by his helmet. He got down off the building and got the communications called in and got them out safely. But to him, that was just him doing his job. It wasn't anything he thought he needed recognition for. So other than those two things, he really didn't share a lot. He would oftentimes he'd say, 'I'll tell you about that when I get home.' But then he never, never did. So, yeah, he didn't share a lot with us, not only because he couldn't, but I think probably to protect us from not worrying, too.”

On How Jon’s Family Found Out About His Death

“I woke up that morning and was just getting up, and my husband had gone to work, and he called and he said, 'Hey, do you have the news on?' And I said, 'No, why? What's going on?' And he said, 'Well, it's probably nothing. But I just heard there were Special Forces that were shot down overnight in Afghanistan. And I don't know, I just have a bad feeling about it.' So I said, 'Well, let me jump on email.' And usually that was about the time of day that if Jon was coming in from a mission because of the time difference, he would be on his email. And so I sent him a quick email and just said, 'hey, I know you're going to make fun of me for thinking this. I'm sure you're fine. But can you just send me an email? Heard about some special forces being killed? Want to make sure you're OK?' "And as the day went on, I didn't hear from him. And then I called a couple of his friends that were SEALs and said, 'Hey, I know you can't give me specifics. Can you just tell me if Jon's OK?' Well, I later learned that they had already been given the news, and didn't want to share that with us until my parents were notified.

Funearl image.jpg
Courtesy of Joy Tumilson McMeekan
On August 19, 2011, Jon Tumilson was laid to rest at Rockford Cemetery. It is a tradition amongst the Navy SEALs to pound their SEAL trident pins into the casket of a fallen comrade.

"As time went on, we started hearing more in the news and I kept going back to what Jon had said to me earlier, that by the time you hear it in the news, you would have been notified. So I was clinging to that hope, but — I just can't explain it. It was just deep in my soul. I just knew that he was gone and was just waiting for somebody to confirm it.

"And so my mom was actually out of town that day. And so I was concerned about my dad because I knew that he was home alone. And so I called him, not because I wanted to worry him, but I didn't want him to be caught off guard. So I kind of told him what I knew. And I asked him if he wanted me to come home. And, keep in mind, I was about four hours away from where I grew up. That's where I lived at the time. And he said, 'No, I'll be okay.' And so I called a couple of his sisters to have his sisters come sit with him.

Jon with Dad.jpg
Courtesy of Joy Tumilson McMeekan
Jon Tumilson and his father George Tumilson. Jon took this photo with him on all of his deployments.

"And so as the day went on, this was like eight o'clock in the morning when I first heard on the news. And then the day kind of lingered on, and we heard more information. We heard it was SEAL team, then we heard it was SEAL Team six, and so we pretty much knew. And so my parents, about 3:30, my dad got a knock at the door, and there were three officers there and they said, when he came to the door, he said, 'I've been expecting you, and I'm sorry.' And they said he had a picture of my brother sitting next to his chair. And so then my dad called me and asked if my husband was with me, and I said no, he went home. I said, 'Why did you hear something?' And he said, 'Well, call me when you get home.' And I said, 'Dad, did you hear something?' And his voice broke. And he said, 'Yeah, I have three officers standing in my living room.' And so I said, 'Okay.' I didn't talk long. I don't even — everything was kind of a blur. I said, 'Okay, we'll get stuff packed up. We'll be there as quick as we can.' I was nervous then because my mom wasn't home yet, so she didn't know. And she was in Cedar Rapids, which is about halfway from where I would have been going from where I lived to home. She finally got home and she pulled in. She saw a bunch of cars. Well their 50th wedding anniversary was coming up that September, and she thought, 'Oh, those guys surprised me with an anniversary party.' And she pulled in and my dad met her at the door and she said, 'What's going on?' And he said, 'We lost our son today.' And she dropped her bags and she said, 'You're kidding me.' And he said, 'I wish I was.' And the three officers kind of walked behind him. And so that's how we found out.

"Him telling us that by the time I was on the news, we would be notified. That normally is the case. But they had 30 families they had to notify, and so getting everybody on planes and getting them there. And then several of the wives were expecting. So they had to have doctors travel. They knew my dad had some health issues. He had had a stroke a year or so before this and had recovered fully. But they knew that my brother was worried about his health. And so they were trying to determine if they needed to bring a doctor with them for him. And so that's how he found out."

Statue.jpg
Courtesy of Joy Tumilson McMeekan
The Fossil and Prairie Park Preserve in Rockford includes a statue of Jon Tumilson and his dog Hawkeye.

The Importance of Remembering

“I think your greatest fear when you are a Gold Star family member and lose somebody, and I suppose to anybody that loses somebody, even not in combat, your greatest fear is, as time goes on, people will start to forget. And you know, this Friday will be the 10 year anniversary of Jon's death. And I'm just so thankful for all the people that continue to share stories about him. And so I'm just so grateful that I just don't want people to forget, to remember his sacrifice and to remember all those things that we take for granted, all the freedoms that we have. There are families and there are people that paid the ultimate sacrifice.

“When Jon was home, he would run a lot in the prairie trails that are out there. And so when we started getting support from memorials from all over the country, we wanted to try to decide what to do. And we ultimately decided to do a statue. And many people commented, they were surprised we didn't put them in full military gear, but that just wasn't who Jon was to us. His military career was a small part of what made him a great man. And so it's just a place I probably feel the closest because I know it’s someplace he enjoyed going. And again, it's something that when I'm not here, and my children aren't here any longer, that it'll still be there to share Jon's story. And not just of him. It pays tribute to all 31 that were killed. And so it'll be a long-standing monument that people, hopefully, will never forget the sacrifice he made."

If you served in Afghanistan and would like to share your story on IPR, please email: rivertoriver@iowapublicradio.org by Sept. 3. You can find more information about the Leaving Afghanistan series here.