Pete Hymans Staff Writer
Introduction: After doing the May interview in Legacy Magazine with Fred Tomasello Jr., I saw Fred post on Facebook that he would be in San Diego in May, to attend a reunion of forward air observers. I knew in an instant that I had to meet this great man face-to-face. For the benefit of those who did not read the our first interview, Tomasello served as a Marine Combat officer who lead men into victory, hell and eternity. He was wounded twice and then served in the capacity of visiting families of Marines and tell them about their kin, who were KIA (killed in action) or wounded in action. Tomasello, editor Jim Ellis and I converged in San Diego, and on meeting, there was an instantaneous “brotherhood-experience.” We had a lively chat over a sumptuous dinner at a quaint Nepalese restaurant. Then, Ellis took us to his San Diego MDI Division Meeting, followed by a break-out meeting with Ellis’ team “Fitness.” What joy to watch Fred becoming immersed with 40-or-more MDI men and to co-experience rituals, ways of being and gifts of trust, which typify MDI meetings.
Here’s my follow-up with Fred. Reaching out yields rich rewards, as you shall see.
Peter Hymans: Well, Fred. It was so nice to meet you in person. Thank you for taking time out from your primary mission in San Diego to meet up with Jim and me.
Fred Tomasello Jr.: Same here, Pete. The mission of the Marine Corps is to “locate, fix and destroy” the enemy. The MDI mission seems to be the exact opposite, so I was not only intrigued but interested in seeing how you guys go about accomplishing your noble mission.
PH: With you pretty much not knowing what to expect, what was your first notable ah-ha moment when we circled up together?
FT: Meeting with a group of men is always interesting because our first impressions are visual. My first favorable impression was that every one of those present, took time out of their lives to actually attend and participate. The group looked diverse in every way, all casually dressed and seemed glad to be there. I could not discern anyone’s background, educational level or area of expertise. At first, some looked at me as an outsider but as soon as they knew I was your guest, they were willing to have me among them as a participant and I felt welcome.
PH: Fred, you hit on an important condition; MDI – is a volunteer organization and as such have no leverage to force our members to act, or be in any particular way. How would your role have been – as a combat leader/commander, if your men could stay – or leave – as a diverse body volunteers?
FT: Pete, Marines are trained to obey and know that any deviation from quick obedience will result in severe punishment. Every platoon often represents the diversity of our country in terms of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. If a leader of the Marines loses the respect of his men, they have ways of making the leader look bad or even placing him in mortal danger. It would have been so easy during a firefight for someone to just shoot me and say the enemy did it, and that fear sometimes can make a leader ineffective. The most important leadership principle – one I followed in the service and throughout my civilian career – is “know your people and look out for their welfare.” Once they see you really care about them, they are willing to do anything you order them to do; respect reigns and grows. Part of caring for them is checking on them often, especially during trying times, being fair and honest and letting them know when they are doing well and when correction is needed.
PH: As the evening unfolded and before we separated into teams, you got to see more and get a feel for what was up for the whole division. What caught your eye and how did that compare to other times you had powerful men around you?
FT: Organization is what first caught my eye. The group was organized into teams. All knew their team leader and I could feel the team’s respect and willingness to follow their leader. A lot of the meeting focused on supporting those members who were going to attend a special event that was going to be physically difficult and emotionally challenging. “It must be like MDI boot camp,” I thought to myself. The advice, encouragement and promises to attendees by those who already went through the process was reassuring to those about to attend and, as a US Marine, I found the camaraderie quite familiar and exciting.
PH: After the division meeting was complete we moved a couple hundred yards away so the smaller team meeting could take place. What differences did you see when the men were in a more intimate circle?
FT: That’s when the focus shifted from the general (group) to the particular and one member was able to speak about a personally troubling issue with the support and encouragement of his team members. Emphasis was placed on honesty and deep feelings and the person who shared his issue was free in expressing his feelings–in this case–anger, in a non-hostile way by role-playing and interacting with another member of the group who played the part of the member’s source of antagonism. I’ve attended individual and group counseling since the 1980’s and the dynamics of anger release that I witnessed that night were healthy, constructive and effectual. The hugs of support were cathartic to both the member expressing their anger and to all who participated in the experience.
PH: That man who revealed so much about himself was also aware that you and I were but visitors to the meeting. What did that tell you?
FT: That man opening up and showing us his vulnerability in front of his leaders and in front of guests – invited by his leaders – tells me that he has a deep, abiding trust in them, in MDI – a trust that is not automatic based on their rank but a trust that was earned somehow in their past relationships. And even more important, something told that man that the experience would be of immense help to him based on what he may have seen happen to others. To see that depth of trust is a tribute to MDI and what you all are doing.
PH: Would you say that the evening of Tuesday, May 29 moved or changed you in any way?
FT: To reiterate on my remarks at the end of the meeting, I wish I could have had an opportunity to participate in a trustworthy mentor group when I was younger instead of following my basic instincts. If life can be compared to a minefield, my approach was to close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears and stomp a path to manhood and success. While admiring and listening to people who, at that time, saw me as being brave, I ignored those who had wisely traversed that path before. Of course, I stepped on and exploded several “mines.” Pete – you, Jim or any MDI team leader could take a long wooden pointer, show everyone my scars and I could explain the errors I made in my life. That’s a part of the solution. The most important part, is that members learn from my mistakes and trust those trying to help.
PH: Because time was so short we did not have time to discuss the opportunities for Fred Tomasello with regard to MDI. What geographic region to you live in and would you have an interest in learning about MDI activities or opportunities near your residence?
FT: We are in the process of selling our home near Buffalo. When it sells, we will stay near Tampa FL year-round. Right now for me, big changes like this are distracting to me and I struggle to stay balanced. Also, I am still processing my return trip to Vietnam as well as the reunions I have attended and noticing the changes I have undergone. Several people have suggested I write another book or at least add several chapters to “Walking Wounded” that include the 50-year return trip and the reunions, but I am still in deep thought on everything. Later on, when we are settled and I have written more about the changes in my life and feel more comfortable with my conclusions, I may decide to participate in MDI.
PH: Is there anything you might like to say to the readers of Legacy Magazine about what you saw or might like to see more of in your life?
FT: Mentoring others is both noble and necessary and can improve the quality of life on our planet so I salute you and support your mission. May your teams grow, be fruitful and multiply.
PH: Fred, I feel joy in calling you “brother.” We have gone deep, shared much and remain in contact. I look forward to being part of your life in the future, and I want you to know that your sacrifices in Vietnam are respected and you are honored for who you were, what you did, and for who you are now and what you are doing. Thank you so very much.
FT: Thank you Peter, for reaching out to me and recognizing that my sacrifices can be of valuable service to others. We are all one.
Postscript: Today Fred speaks out to us all in his book “Walking Wounded.” For more and deeper information about Fred, his experiences and his book, please click: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDcVeIQVxc4