At about the same time Tomlinson, 24, was leaving Anniston’s airport in a van with his family, bound for his home. As they traveled along Alabama 21 signs and even a billboard read “welcome home Ben” and people stood along the roadside to welcome him. The Anniston Fire Department displayed its trucks in tribute and firefighters turned out in a show of respect.
When the van approached Jacksonville’s Public Square, flags waved in the hands of school children, signs with words like “brave” flashed and the crowd broke out in a chant, declaring “we love you Ben.”
“As we got closer to Jacksonville it was just more and more overwhelming,” his mom, Debbie Tomlinson, said afterward. “None of us could believe the crowd.”
And when the van’s automatic door began to roll slowly back, Ben’s father, Chuck Tomlinson, got out to help his son into a compact wheelchair as hundreds of Kitty Stone Elementary School pupils looked on. Then his father pushed Tomlinson’s chair from the roadside to the square’s center, past a line of saluting former Marines to the stage, where county commissioners, coaches, Jacksonville State University President Bill Meehan and Mayor Johnny Smith were waiting.
“Ben, this is a day we’ve been praying for for a long time and we’re really glad it’s here,” Smith said.
Tomlinson, a sergeant in the Marine Corps, was shot in the neck on May, 11, 2011, while securing a rooftop during a mission in Afghanistan. When team members discovered him, Tomlinson displayed no visible signs of life but they were able to restore his breathing.
Shortly after the shooting, his parents received a call notifying them of their son’s injury but they received no word on his condition. Debbie Tomlinson said she and her husband fell to the floor in prayer when they got the call. Twenty-four hours later they learned their son was alive and hospitalized.
Tomlinson today is paralyzed from the chest down, though he has some ability to use his hands and arms. He returned to Jacksonville on Wednesday after eight months in hospitals in Afghanistan, Germany, Maryland and Florida.
Tomlinson received an advanced diploma at Jacksonville High School. There, he was a three-sport athlete, playing baseball and football and running for the track team.
On Wednesday, a small group of his high school baseball teammates came up from the crowd, giving Tomlinson high-fives and clapping him on the back. One of them, Jonathan Shadoan, is a fellow Marine.
“Now that he’s back, we’re just going to have to keep him going,” Shadoan said.
But Tomlinson doesn’t plan on slowing down. His mother said her son intends to go back to college. A one-time JSU student, he plans to return to the university next spring or fall, possibly to study finance.
And according to Meehan, he has an open invitation to do so.
“I want to see you back on campus because you are wonderful example for every single one of (our) students,” JSU’s president said.
If Tomlinson successfully returns to college and moves forward to achieve into his later years, it’ll come as no surprise to those who know him well. Standing in the crowd Wednesday was Austin Boyd, who traveled from Huntsville for the ceremony.
Boyd’s son Alex, also a former Marine, was deployed with Tomlinson to Afghanistan. He said a picture of their son and Tomlinson remains on his refrigerator from the young men’s time in basic training.
Boyd said he knows Tomlinson to be an achiever and a believer. And he said he’s counting on those attributes to propel Tomlinson to continue succeeding.
“Ben is an amazing guy. He doesn’t quit,” Boyd said. “He just wants to get on with his life.”
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544.