Standing outside the church, Tom Wood watches for a chance to talk to the woman who is now a Gold Star mother.
He is wearing a navy-colored coat with shiny buttons, cream-colored “short clothes” and wool pants. A 6-foot-long black cravat is tied around his neck. The black military shako or “tar bucket” never leaves his head.
Some people who see Tom standing there, paying his respects, have asked him if he is a toy soldier and some have asked if he is depicting an officer from the War of 1812 — a close guess.
It’s the same uniform he wears when he portrays Col. Henry Leavenworth during Living History Days at Fort Atkinson State Park in Fort Calhoun — circa 1820s — when officers were just starting to decorate their coats again, Tom said.
Tom sat in the office of the Washington County Historical Museum in Fort Calhoun and talked about how he began traveling to funerals. He puts on his uniform and drives across Iowa or Nebraska to services for soldiers killed in combat. He says it is a way to pay back the tribute and respect he received in July 2010 when his 19-year-old son, Eddie, was killed in Afghanistan.
Eddie had tagged along with Tom since he was 2. The pair were filmed in a boat for Ken Burns’ documentary, “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery,” and Tom has been in other documentaries.
Eddie’s service in the Army was a lot like what he had done in re-enactments at the fort.
“He ended up being an Army scout, out in front of the whole Army,” Tom said. “That is how he got killed.”
Tom said his initial reaction was to go to Afghanistan and avenge his son’s death.
Ten days after his son died, Tom went to a funeral of an Omahan killed in battle, who had lived five blocks away from them. Tom wore his colonel’s uniform.
“It was just something I could do,” Tom said. “I try to meet the family. I stand outside and watch with the active duty volunteers.”
Fixing up a 100-year-old house in Florence and traveling to funerals to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers helped him heal, he said.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” Tom said. “Staying involved is therapy.”
Tom has volunteered as a re-enactor since the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976.
“It is a really creative hobby,” Tom said. “I was originally involved because of the guns.”
He had played Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone as a boy, he said. When he was old enough to own black powder guns, he liked working with them and he began “buck skinning” — portraying a mountain man. He volunteered at Fort Atkinson Living History Days.
When volunteers at Fort Atkinson developed the idea of having a dinner with the colonel during Living History Days, he agreed to become the colonel. Fort Atkinson never really had a full-time colonel, Tom said, but he chose to portray Leavenworth because the man was known in the Omaha area and had spent time at the fort when it was active.
When he needed the costume, it was hard to find patterns for the wool coats, pants and “small clothes” and linen shirts. Having an artistic and carpentry-work background, Tom began sewing his own clothes. He has also sewn a few dresses for women volunteers, considering it just another creative project.
Officers in the day of Fort Atkinson were dandy dressers, he said. Nobody went outside without a weskit (waistcoat or vest) nor a hat.
Officers were chosen then from the gentry because of their good manners and ability to be gentlemen more than for their military prowess,
“That’s why so many got killed,” he said.
If he bought a wool coat now, which are easier to find online now that more people are involved in re-enactments, it might cost $500 without buttons.
He feels “normal” in his uniform, Tom said. The only drawback is coping with hot Nebraska days when Col. Leavenworth is out on the parade ground at Fort Atkinson. Then, the wool pants and weskit can be exchanged for linen ones.
As the colonel, he does not spend the time training recruits in the 6th U.S. Infantry or the rifle regiment that his captain, two lieutenants and two sergeants spend on the parade grounds. He has good people who train the young men who volunteer.
But if a visitor at the fort asks him a question, he will probably be able to answer it or point out who can.
“I’ve got a general knowledge,” Tom said. “John Slader (Fort Atkinson superintendent) is a walking museum. He’s been working there as long as I’ve been doing this.”
Besides the re-enacting and the tributes at funerals, Tom will sometimes be asked to speak at programs, such as Veterans Day services and to groups such as the Blair Optimist Club.
Tom is a representative for Iowa’s “Remembering Our Fallen” program, which has a traveling display honoring those soldiers who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He fits the 21-foot-long wall of photographs and information in the trunk of his car. On April 18, he was taking it to Fort Dodge, Iowa, for display.
He has also enjoyed the distinction of having traveled completely across the United States in a covered wagon in 1982 through Vision Quest.
One of the things he enjoys the most is serving as the colonel of a fort established in 1819 as the first U.S. Army post west of the Missouri River. He compares it to a space flight.
“This was a moon shot,” Tom said. “They came up here on steamboats, a modern invention, and set up here. They had to build everything. They were six weeks away from any kind of civilization. It was Indian territory. It was the middle of nothing.”
He finds it an amazing thing that all of the people who came out to the region did not die in the first years.
He finds it interesting to share that history with others. Tom said he plans to keep volunteering at Fort Atkinson “until they throw me out.”