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Published 3/31/06

Tom Stone talks with students at the Pomfret School at the conclusion of his walk around the world in May 2000.
(Valley News — Jennifer Hauck)



Journey Ends in Mourning
Fallen Soldier's Friends Salute a Life of Empathy

By Jodie Tillman
Valley News Staff Writer


Before he chopped wood in Belgium, slept at a bus stop in France, wintered in Siberia, Tom Stone laid an invisible line that would follow him eight years and 22,000 miles.

The line anchored at Pomfret School, where Stone kept a connection to his hometown by exchanging letters and souvenirs with the schoolchildren during his 1992-2000 walks through more than two dozen countries.

“I can feel cold, I can feel rain, but I can feel good as long as I get letters,” Stone told the Valley News the day he started his journey. “You need a mental anchor.”

In some ways the relationship between Stone and the children illustrated one of the central complexities of the fallen National Guard medic's life: He was a traveler who nurtured connections with other people, a man who acted on both his wanderlust and his sense of community.

“The moment you met him,” said fellow Guardsman, Maj. Tom Cahalan, “he had this ability to connect with anyone.”

Stone, a 52-year-old White River Junction and Pomfret native who most recently lived in Tunbridge, was killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday (Tuesday afternoon in Vermont) in an attack by Taliban militants.

The connections he made with people took different forms. On his journey around the world, he had new acquaintances inscribe short messages in his notebooks so that he could remember them and stay in touch. In Afghanistan, he procured medical supplies and, on his own initiative, started a small clinic out of a shipping container, helping treat thousands of adults and children. And from year to year, no matter where he was, he played the role of the quiet and sensible adviser to his closest friends.

“He was gifted as a healer,” said childhood friend Elisha Morgan, who lives in Norwich. “Just Tom being in the room, he had a demeanor that calmed other people.”

The son of a Hartford postman and a mother descended from the Hazens, Hartford's oldest family, Stone spent his early childhood in the Tafts Flat neighborhood in Wilder before his family moved to a North Pomfret farmhouse.

“Nice family,” said Lucien Guay, a West Lebanon resident who ran a barbershop in downtown White River Junction for years and remembers giving the young Stone his first haircut. “If you couldn't get along with them, you might as well give up.”

Stone played baseball and football and minded his manners at school. “I just remember I liked Tom,” said his former biology teacher, Wayne Karlson of White River Junction. “He tried to do what was right.”

But during his junior year at Woodstock Union High School, his family received devastating news: His brother, Dana, 15 years older than Tom, had gone missing in Cambodia while working there as a war photographer.

National magazines, as well as two books, told the story of Dana Stone, who disappeared with Sean Flynn, a son of Hollywood movie actor Errol Flynn, when they ranged ahead of an Army patrol. They were never seen again.

Rarely someone to display his emotions, Stone internalized much of the pain, Morgan speculated.

“Tom was a pretty private guy about his emotions, but you could tell he felt things very deeply,” he said.

The absence of his brother, a handsome and adventurous man who had enthralled Stone with tales of his own travels, became one of the driving forces in Stone's decision to join the Army after graduating from high school.

“He was intrigued by his older brother,” said Morgan.

At some level, Morgan said, Stone had a desire to join the Army to find his brother. On another level, he said, that family misfortune, along with others, might have been behind Stone's remarkable empathy.

“If Tom saw a need, he'd fill it,” said Morgan. “And when you live that way, outside of yourself, you get it.”

In 1971, Stone joined the Army as an infantryman and later joined the Army Reserve and trained to be a medic. He joined the Vermont National Guard in 1982 as a medical instructor. But in 1992, after 14 years of service, he did an outlandish thing: He sold his home, quit his job and set a goal for himself to walk around the world.

“You've got to make things happen,” he told the Valley News shortly before he left. “You can't just sit around at home and make neat things happen.”

And so for eight years, his friends and family watched him get grayer and thinner in photographs he sent from overseas. He had adventures that he would later share with people back home, like slogging through monsoon-drenched Southeast Asia or being swept away by a swollen river in New Zealand. “Pomfret's own Tom Stone has been round the world!” read one flier for a talk at Abbott Memorial Library.

Harry Black, who grew up in Hartford and was a friend of Dana Stone, said the two brothers had something in common: “They all shared the same genetic makeup: They liked adventure.”

Stone's trek received some attention abroad. In May 1997, he told the Bangkok Post that he was dedicated to becoming one of a handful of people who walked around the globe. “Sometimes the dream becomes the master,” Stone was quoted as saying. “I don't think I could stop now even if I really wanted to.”

After returning in 2000, he began working full time for the Vermont National Guard. About six years ago, he also met Rose Loving, an artist and yoga instructor, and the two later bought a house together in Tunbridge, said Morgan.

“They were two peas in a pod,” he said.

Stone volunteered for the first Afghanistan mission in May 2003, then decided to stay in Afghanistan until September 2004. In March 2005, he volunteered a third time to deploy with the Green Mountain Boys.

It was an unusual decision to volunteer twice, but some of those who know him say it came as little surprise.

Cahalan, the Guardsman, said Stone was not at all ambivalent when they spoke about his decision the first time. In fact, Stone also helped Cahalan decide to volunteer to stay. “He said, ‘These people need us here,' ” Cahalan recalled. “He had made a connection.”

“He saw the Afghani people as victims of the war,” said Morgan. “He took particular joy in helping the sick and the injured and his fellow soldiers.”

News of his death in Afghanistan caused local residents who had not seen him in years to catch their breath when they read his name and saw his picture in newspapers.

“I just said, ‘Oh my God. One of my kids has been killed,' ” said Karlson, the retired teacher. “He was one of those (students) I'd think about on occasion and wonder what had become of them. What he dedicated his life to was unbelievable.”

For many of them, the widely published photograph of Stone holding hands with Afghan children seemed an appropriate tribute to his legacy.

“It made me think, ‘Here he is, walking the world with kids,' ” said Laurel Tobiason of Barnard, a former schoolmate.

On his walks around the world, Stone often had difficulties leaving behind the new friends he made, he wrote in one of his notebooks.

“I would like to stay here longer but like a good traveler, I do what I do best,” he wrote. “I keep moving on.”