“Every day, CIA employees risk their lives to keep the nation safe. Some make the ultimate sacrifice and give their lives for the mission. On the smooth white marble walls of the CIA Original Headquarters Building lobby, a field of stars serves as a somber, silent memorial for fallen CIA officers.”
Those words, taken from the Web site of the Central Intelligence Agency — better known as the CIA — were written about the 103 fallen agency workers who have lost their lives while serving their country in the field of intelligence.
This past May, the CIA revealed the names of 15 officers who had lost their lives in service of their country but had previously gone unacknowledged. And Thomas M. Jennings was one of them.
“Yes, I knew,” said his wife, Vivian Jennings, of her husband’s work. “He was classified as a finance officer, but I didn’t know exactly what he was doing and he couldn’t talk about.”
Jennings— who now lives in Fenwick Island — said that her husband’s job was kept secret from everyone else in their lives, including their three kids, extended family and friends.
“We said that he worked for the State Department,” she explained.
When Jennings first started dating her husband, he was in the Marine Corps. She said that, from the start, she knew he was dedicated to serving his country.
“It was very apparent that he was very dedicated to our country. He just really knew that we lived in a good country. He didn’t take it for granted — that our freedom was earned by a lot of other people who suffered. He was happy that his job involved something that was for the good of our country.”
In September of 1997, Thomas Jennings volunteered for a temporary assignment in Bosnia — an assignment that was only supposed to last a few months.
“I knew he was in Bosnia,” said Jennings. “He just told me that he was going and that it was temporary… This was a temporary duty assignment. He left on Sept. 30, and he was supposed to be home by Christmas. I didn’t like it when he left. He went on this because they needed someone to go, but we didn’t like being apart.”
Jennings said that her husband had done work overseas previously, and that she and their kids had even lived with him during some those times.
“We lived overseas twice. We lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and in Vienna, Austria. He also went to New Delhi, India, and he was in Pakistan for a while,” she said. “I loved the overseas living. Living in Brazil and in Vienna was exciting, and we got to see a lot of things we never would’ve gotten to see. I think it brought our core family, the kids and us, closer, because we did it all together. It was actually exciting.”
On Dec. 2, 1997, Thomas Jennings was leading a four-vehicle convoy when his car swerved off the road and into a creek.
“They contacted me,” said Jennings, of the CIA informing her of her husband’s death. “I was hoping that it was just that I had to hurry up and go there, that he had been injured. But, of course, I knew something was wrong.
“It was at 10:30 at night. I got a call from a person I knew, and they asked me if I was home. They lived in Virginia and I lived in Maryland, and he told me that he was on this road in Maryland, and I just knew…”
The next day, Jennings said that everyone who knew the family showed up to their house to give the family their love and support.
“My kids were in their late teens and early 20s, and the house just filled up with all their friends. I’m a teacher and taught 150 kids, and the next day at 3 o’clock, I bet there were 100 in my house.”
Jennings said that while her husband had been in Bosnia, the two communicated mostly through letters.
“It was back in 1997. Email was just starting… We did get to talk on the phone occasionally, not every day,” she said. “I got a letter that came through the mail two weeks after he died and the very end said, ‘Take care of yourself, because if something happened to you, I couldn’t go on...’ I cried for two years… I love talking about him, because he’s not gone in my mind.”
During the May Memorial Ceremony, CIA Director David Petraeus praised the fallen officers for the dedication and love they had for their country.
“The 103 souls represented by the stars on the wall behind me all heard the same call to duty and answered it without hesitation — never for acclaim, always for country. They devoted their hearts and minds to a mission unlike any other, at an agency unlike any other, serving on the world’s most dangerous frontiers to defend our people, defeat our adversaries and advance our freedoms. Their words and deeds will inspire us forever, and their service and sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
After 15 years, Jennings — who already had a star on the Memorial Wall — finally got his name added next to his star in the CIA’s Book of Honor.
“It was wonderful. It’s an honor. He had a star on the wall and his name was only read once a year,” said Jennings. “It’s really quite an honor to be written in there.”
Outside of the agency, Jennings said her family was very normal and revolved mostly around their kids.
“I was proud of him, but I guess it’s like any other thing — he was my husband. When he came home, of course, he couldn’t discuss work, so our family really revolved around our children and family. We liked to go to the movies. We liked to read a lot, play games, cards, and we had lots of friends.”
Jennings continuously said her husband was a great father who was always involved in his children’s lives.
“He was a hands-on father. He was always in there, changing the diapers, feeding the babies, walking the babies, whereas our friends, not all of the fathers did that… He was also a coach for many years,” she added, noting that he was so involved in that in Burtonsville, Md., that there is now a Thomas M. Jennings Memorial Ball Field commemorating his dedication to coaching.
After her husband’s death, Jennings relocated to Fenwick Island and became one of the first teachers at the Most Blessed Sacrament school in Berlin, Md.
“We always vacationed in Delaware,” she said. “I just thought I would move down here because it would be a nice place. The children and grandchildren would always want to come to the beach.”
Of the attention Jennings’ work for the country has been getting, Vivian said that he would be “flabbergasted” if he knew.
“I love talking about him. He was an amazing man. He was so fun. He was so down to earth,” she said. “He would just be flabbergasted that people would want to talk to him because he was very patriotic and didn’t think it was a big deal what he was doing. He was happy to live in America. He thought we had a great country and whatever he could do to help his country, he was willing to do it.
“He was very unassuming. He wasn’t a showoff. He just did what he had to do and didn’t think he was doing anything out of the ordinary, just working for his country.”