Photo: Pictured above, VA social worker Tom Johnson receives a plaque from the Monday Group commemorating his time working with veterans.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
In the Gadsden Veterans Affairs Clinic located at 206 Rescia Ave, a sign reads “where courage meets compassion.” For those who served the United States military, one man met their courage with compassion for over 43 years.
In a courageous effort of his own, VA social worker Tom Johnson spent his lifelong career trying to repay the sacrifices veterans made for him. When local veterans discovered Johnson was retiring, they showed Johnson how his compassion affected their lives.
United by their mutual respect for Johnson, the Gadsden VA’s Monday Group (a collection of veterans with whom Johnson worked) and Johnson’s family planned two celebrations to commemorate Johnson’s retirement and express their gratitude.
On Dec. 30 in Gadsden, veterans and their families gathered with Johnson’s family at Super Hibachi Buffet and Grill for a surprise lunch in Johnson’s honor. The moment Johnson arrived, applause flooded the restaurant and smiles ordained each face. The Monday Group awarded Johnson an appreciation plaque featuring each member’s name, a hunting rifle and two gifts that generated much laughter: a cane with a horn and a walker, for him to use in retirement.
Throughout the luncheon, men and women constantly came up to Johnson, embracing him and thanking him. Some knew Johnson for decades, others for months, but when the party erupted in a chorus of “For He’s a Jolly-Good Fellow,” no mouth was silent. The veterans dedicated the song to Johnson as a musical affirmation of his acceptance into their comradery. Though Johnson is not a veteran himself, the men he served consider him one of their own.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Johnson confessed.
On Jan. 2, Johnson’s last day of work, veterans held a “Hale and Farewell Walkthrough,” for Johnson, lining the walls of the Gadsden VA clinic lobby and saluting him as he walked out of his office. Johnson, overcome with emotion, paused in the doorway before walking underneath the salutes. As he passed by each veteran, Johnson shook each man’s hand and embraced them.
“You’ve taught me the true meaning of friendship,” Johnson told the veterans.
Johnson graduated from the University of Alabama in 1973 with a degree in social work and began working at Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa. As Bryce Hospital’s head of the social workers department, Johnson met his future wife, Connie, who was head of the home economics department. On Fridays, Connie would prepare morning and afternoon meals with her patients. The two eventually began dating after Connie, interested in Johnson, invited him to her Friday lunches. The qualities that attracted Connie to her husband define his character and characterize who he was when they met and who he is today both at home and work. For Connie, Johnson was unlike anyone she had ever known.
“I was fascinated with him because he was just always so kind and thoughtful,” Connie said. “Without a doubt, we are a close family. Our children adore their dad and call him almost daily. It’s rare that this ever happens, that a man works this long with veterans. He just takes so much pride in what he does.”
Working with veterans has always been Johnson’s ultimate goal. After a little over three years at Bryce, Johnson took a position at the Gadsden VA clinic and worked there ever since. Throughout his years at the VA, Johnson witnessed the evolution of veteran care from hospital-based care to community care. Working at the Gadsden clinic, he was a part of one of the first community-based clinics that opened.
For Johnson, working at the VA confirmed how he has always felt towards members of the military, and exemplified the value and dedication that service members personify. Growing up with several relatives in the military, including uncles who served in World War II, Johnson experienced firsthand the struggles military members face and the sacrifices they willingly make to ensure the safety and betterment of their country. From a young age, Johnson’s appreciation for veterans created a desire in him to serve those who serve others.
“[Working for the VA] gave me a greater appreciation for how fortunate this nation has been to have the group of veterans we’ve been able to call upon to provide the protection, the service and all the sacrifice that they’ve made,” Johnson shared. “It’s just given me a greater appreciation of what other people have done for me. I’m not a veteran myself, but as I’ve said, working for the VA has given me some sense of being able to in a small way give back.”
Johnson insisted that his accomplishments were not achieved alone. Working as a team to help veterans, he shared how his coworkers have influenced his own profession.
“I had the opportunity to work with a lot of great staff,” Johnson said. “The people that I’ve worked with have made the job so much easier. They’re very supportive and professional.”
One of Johnson’s coworkers, Hertlean Hundley, confirmed that the respect Johnson feels towards the VA staff is mutual. Hundley, an Advanced Medical Support Assistant at the clinic, has worked with Johnson for 18 years and verified his unwavering work ethic—a trait that has remained constant since the moment they met.
“You couldn’t ask for a better worker,” Hundley said. “Tom is here way before anyone else in the clinic and when patients start showing up, he’s getting them and taking them back. They’re more than just patients [to Tom]. They’re friends.”
As a clinic social worker, Johnson’s days are spent mostly with individual appointments, typically every hour.
A few days a week he conducts post-traumatic stress disorder groups that generally consist of 15-20 members. The Monday Group has 23 members: all combat veterans who fought in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Close-knit, respectful and supportive of one another, the Monday Group bonded quickly and deeply.
Grant Hopper, a Vietnam veteran and member of Johnson’s Monday Group, shared one of his favorite memories the men experienced together. A few years ago, Johnson and several of the Monday Group veterans traveled to Washington, D.C., together to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, often referred to as The Wall That Heals. Healing is a process to which Johnson has dedicated his life, giving all veterans he encountered throughout his career his unbroken attention and devotion.
Hopper, who has known Johnson for almost 15 years, considers Johnson one of the best and most caring men he has ever known. Hopper emphasized Johnson’s dedication to veterans, illustrating how Johnson conducted Monday Group meetings. At the end of each session, Johnson asked if anyone has any “parting words,” giving each individual one last opportunity to speak. The veterans, their health and lives were the focus of each meeting, and Johnson put them first before anything else.
“Tom was never in the military, but I asked him ‘how many wars do you fight a day, because you see so many people [veterans] that have a really hard time, especially with change?’” Hopper added. “We just love him and appreciate him. The good news is, he appreciates us. He said he’s never had a group that bonded so much as we have. And we are a group that sticks together.”
The group that sticks together was the group that orchestrated (along with Johnson’s family) Johnson’s retirement surprises to express their gratitude for a man that has affected their lives so deeply.
Eight years ago, Monday Group member Doug Machleit felt leery of joining the group. It was Johnson who changed Machleit’s mind, helped him transition and set him at ease. Machleit, a Vietnam veteran who was just 17 when he went to war, explained that Johnson never forced anyone to tell him about their experiences during war. He allowed the veterans to vocalize their thoughts, but never pressured them to share.
“He isn’t the type of person that spoke above us or below us, he spoke with us and at us,” said Machleit. I think that’s what made all of us so comfortable. We can go into group and we don’t talk about Vietnam or what war we were in. We go in and if somebody has a problem we try to help each other.”
Though the veterans wish Johnson the best in his retirement, a void has arisen where Johnson once stood. For a man whose commitment encompassed his heart, a new standard is set for whomever must fill his shoes. Johnson’s relationship with veterans represents the indestructible bond that forms where kindness and empathy reside, and the positive change that occurs when someone chooses to combine care with action. Johnson is more than just a social worker, a counselor or friend – he is proof of how one person possesses the ability to make a difference, to touch numerous lives and the change that compassion creates in the world.
“We have a long road ahead of us, but he’s really helped us,” said Machleit. “He’ll be hard to replace.”