Tommy Jardas set out on the evening of January 14, 2016 in a CH-53E Super Stallion Helicopter off the North Shore of Hawaii for a night training mission with 11 of his Marine brothers. He snapchatted a message to his sister before the flight: “I have the coolest job.”
The two helicopters, Pegasus 31 and Pegaus 32, conducted manouevers in tight formation while heavy winds and sea kicked up in the Pacific Ocean. Although thousands of miles from a war theater, these Marines willingly took on great personal risk to simulate combat conditions in the dark.
At some point during the flight the Super Stallions lost visual contact with each other and collided, killing all the Marines on board instantly.
Tommy’s family received the news that Tommy was part of the training mission about 6pm EST the following night. They held out hope for a miracle for 5 days while the Marines and Coast Guard performed extensive search and rescue operations. With the wide coverage in the local papers and television affiliates, a great many Fort Myers residents were thinking of Tommy and praying for him and his family.
At Cypress Lake High School, where Tommy graduated in 2011, a candlelight vigil was held by the students to honor and remember him. His father, Tim Jardas, spoke movingly about the qualities of his son. The Lee County Sheriff’s Department sent a helicopter to fly over the school’s courtyard as a salute to Tommy.
During the same week the U.S. Marine Corps held a solemn military service, streamed live internationally, by the sea for the 12 fallen Marines at their base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
On April 22, Tommy’s flag-draped casket returned to Fort Myers. His family met him on the Southwest Florida International Airport tarmac. Unknown to them, a parade route with a sheriff and police escort had been established in the morning to usher the procession across Fort Myers. Several thousand residents lined the route.
“Tommy truly had a hero’s welcome home,” said his mother, Beth Haely. “Sheriff Mike Scott provided the 17- mile escort to the funeral home as we drove by every Lee County, Fort Myers and Veterans Group lining the route. It was incredible to see them saluting and waving flags and banners of support. Thank you to Kim Gaide and her volunteers at Lee Health Military Support Program for all they did to arrange such a reception.
“The JROTC at Cypress Lake High School saluted as we drove by and the CLHS Marching Band played as Tommy’s hearse drove past the high school. Our sincere and deepest thanks to all the veterans and Lee County First Responders units for welcoming Tommy home.”
Beth’s cousins, Bruce and Haely Bates, came up with the idea of creating a lasting memorial for Tommy at Cypress Lake High School. With Beth they worked all through the summer and fall to design the memorial and raise $30,000. Cypress Lake HS Principal Angela Roles and Assistant Principal Adam Kurtz helped coordinate the project and provided every assistance. At Cypress, Tommy was well known as an anchor for the morning news – “Tommy with Sports!”
On September 30, 2017 Cpl Tommy Jardas was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 60. Tommy’s connection to General Robert E. Lee is extraordinary: he was born in Lee Memorial Hospital, lived in Lee County for his first 18 years, and is now interred in the sacred ground that belonged to Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee before the Civil War.
On January 14, 2017 – Tommy’s Angelversary – the Memorial at Cypress Lake High School was dedicated in the course of a stirring ceremony. Hundreds gathered to see the stunning black granite marker revealed and pay tribute to one of the finest young men ever to live in Fort Myers.
Tommy entered military service on December 5, 2011 when he reported at Parris Island, South Carolina for Boot Camp. He trained at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola and completed Marine Combat Training in winter conditions in Maine. He learned to operate the CH-53E Super Stallion while at Flight School at Cherry Point, North Carolina.
In August, 2013 he arrived at the Marine Corps Base at Kanehoe Bay, HI. He loved the mountains and flying over the Pacific Ocean, and talked about seeing whales, sharks and sea turtles in the water below during helicopter flights. His unit put out forest fires, and he said he could feel the heat from the fires as they doused the flames with buckets of water.
Before he left for Boot Camp, Tommy took a job at Love Boat Ice Cream. His mother, Beth, loved to come in to see him in the evenings and order peanut butter chocolate ice cream. “I love you Tommy,” she called out across the parlor each time she left, embarrassing him and sparking the mostly high-school aged staff to chime in, “I love you, too!”
Tommy scooped thousands of ice cream cones during his time at Love Boat and became close friends with Cy and Courtney Staley, Erin Roth, and the whole team.
He approached each ice cream order with military style and correctness, such that Cy nicknamed his form, when preparing to scoop, “The Tommy Stance.”
“He literally tried SO hard and cared about doing his job well,” said Courtney.
Erin said of Tommy: “His main goal was to make other people happy. No memory I have of him involves sadness, only laughter. We would talk in movie quotes and have whipped cream fights at work. He was the most genuine person I’ve ever known. There was no question that whatever Tommy was saying or doing came directly from his heart. He wasn’t someone you just knew – if you met Tommy, you were his friend.”
Ryan Mitnick went to Cypress High School with Tommy and together they went to Boot Camp at Parris Island.
“Tommy Jardas is my best friend,” said Ryan. “He wasn’t an ordinary individual. He was the person who always knew what to say or what to do. For instance, we had the job to record, edit, and create DVDs for a Cinderella performance at the arts studio in high school. This project took Tommy and I a long time to finish. At certain points we almost went crazy. At one point during the video after having listened to the songs over and over again and feeling worn out, Tommy just stopped editing, looked at me dead serious and quoted the show, saying, “Do you love me because I am beautiful, or am I beautiful because you love me?” We both bursted out laughing and continued to work on the video. From that point on this was one of the countless inside jokes between Tommy and I.”
Tommy’s Memorial fundraising exceeded the goal, making it possible to establish an annual scholarship in his name to be part of Panther Senior Awards. Each year a new flag will be raised on January 14 and the Cpl Tommy Jardas Scholarship will be awarded. His flagpole and granite marker will be lit up 24/7 every day of the year. ❂