Many little boys daydream about growing up and becoming firefighters, policemen, cowboys and astronauts, but Thomas Houser from an early age only wanted to join the Armed Forces.
“We have pictures of him and Joe (his older brother) — Joe was in a ninja suit and Tom was dressed for the Army, I mean, he had on a real Army helmet and the whole nine yards,” Houser’s mother, M.E. Ward said. “He had the eye black below his eyes — he was ready to go to battle, and he was probably 5 of 6 at the time.”
Graduating from St. Albert Catholic Schools in 2000, Houser acted upon his childhood dream and joined the Marine Corps, following in the footsteps of Joe. On Jan. 3, 2005, the Bluffs native was killed serving in Amiriya, Iraq, while assigned to the 2nd Force Reconnaissance 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On Monday, the Council Bluffs City Council will vote on a resolution that with passage will result in the commemorative name change of Gleason Avenue to Sgt. Thomas E. Houser Way. In the wake of his passing, St. Albert and the city have honored the marine’s memory in various ways: jump starting the Sgt. Thomas E. Houser Scholarship Fund, hosting Catholic masses served in his name and this year, a CrossFit workout day in his honor.
Ward said the most recent recognition is equally as special. Commemorative signs in a different color than the Gleason Avenue plaques will be erected at the intersections of McPherson and Gleason avenues, as well as the crossing of Bonham Street and Gleason, Ward said.
“There’s a lot of people who still care a lot,” Ward said. “And it’s not just his close friends and St. Albert, it’s a community that cares — it’s Council Bluffs. They want to keep his memory alive and his legacy intact. It’s very important to have that hope and that feel of freedom and know that there’s someone out there who helped to do that.”
The idea for the commemorative renaming jump started about six years ago, according to Ward. Though it was on the council’s radar for some time, the ball really got rolling in the past few years with generating support for the idea.
Mayor Matt Walsh said the renaming is commemorative because it still fully recognizes the person while not throwing a wrench into people’s lives occupying the neighborhoods.
“Groups of citizens may request recognition, and we’ve had times when people request an actual name change and it does not go well,” Walsh said. “People have their bank checks with their address on it, if there’s businesses they have marketing materials with their address on it — just a variety of different things that contain their address that they would have to change.”
In the 1990s, Walsh noted a stretch of road was renamed to Harry Langdon Boulevard, resulting in several individuals expressing displeasure. As a result, around three years ago the council implemented an ordinance that would recognize important Bluffs figures without actually making a complete name change to an existing thoroughfare.
Council Bluffs City Councilman Chad Hannan, who graduated from St. Albert two years after Houser, noted a group has come together to cover the cost of the commemorative street signs.
And the location where the commemorative signs will be installed is of great significance to Ward. St. Albert is where, of course, Tom went, as well as his brother and four of Ward’s seven siblings. It’s a place, she said, that was near and dear to Tom.
“When he would come back, he would go back to St. Albert’s and seek out the teachers, he also sent money to the football team to help,” Ward said.
Hannan said, “He’s not forgotten. There’s a lot about Tom Houser that’s in the fiber in St. Albert. The Tom Houser Way — commitment to community, family. They still preach it at St. Albert to this day.”
Another honor for Houser this year — the City Council and Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors declared Jan. 3 Sgt. Thomas Houser Day.
“It’s honoring Tom and letting people know Veterans Affairs is still out there. We can do a lot of things for people,” said Jesse Shea, a member of the county veterans commission and also a 2002 St. Albert graduate.
Pottawattamie County Veterans Affairs Director Nick Jedlicka said the move is a chance to honor fallen soldiers. A similar designation occurred in April for Sgt. Brent Maher. The county would like to recognize others as well.
“It’s nice. Tom is not forgotten 16 years later,” Jedlicka said. “This is about taking care of veterans. Now we’re seeing some other people — they know this is an available thing that can be done for veterans.”
Houser, Ward said, was someone who went out of his way to help others and bring smiles to people’s faces. That might happen by way of his contagious laugh, or the importance he placed on mingling with all types of people, regardless of whether they were considered to be one of the “cool” kids or not.
Her son was a person who prioritized family and someone who always wanted to see his mother happy.
Ward recalled the final time he returned to Council Bluffs the year prior to his death. His mother said she had photos of Tom and Joe — who was deployed prior to Tom — and wanted to have the pictures displayed in a special frame sporting the Marines emblem.
They hopped from one Hobby Lobby location to the next looking for the frame, and when hope was all but lost, Tom pulled through.
“I was getting tired of looking, but Tom went back to the area where those would be and he found it,” she said. “He was so thrilled for me; it was just an amazing, touching moment.”
When Tom returned overseas, Ward said she had a “mother’s intuition” that she wouldn’t see him again. She noted she had a similar feeling when she somehow knew Joe married — something he hadn’t made public.
So when she got the news of her son’s death, it wasn’t total shock, but it didn’t make the process easier. Early January was a blur: the Jan. 3 death, body returning stateside Jan. 10, Jan. 11 wake and Jan. 12 burial at St. Joseph Cemetery.
Even in death, though, her son found a way to make her crack a smile. Reading a letter he wrote to Ward prior to his death — which was to be sent should he die — Tom made a request.
“He said, ‘please Mom, if you put any pictures out there don’t let it be my official one, because it sucks,” she said. “It made me giggle, and he had a way of doing this with so many people.”
And with the street renaming, Ward believes her son will once again find a way to impact Bluffs residents from beyond the grave.
“Even after death, he’s still doing something,” Ward said. “And that’s what people need, they need that hope.
“To say that this man grew up in Council Bluffs and he grew up to become a great man and died for our country, for our protection, that in itself is a great gift.”
— News Editor Mike Brownlee contributed.