By Gabrielle Russon, Kalamazoo Gazette
The 23-year-old soldier from Plainwell had been in Afghanistan since April on his first deployment. He wanted to go back to school, meet a nice girl and then settle down, Denise Allers recalled of their talk.
But on May 23, at 11:30 p.m., Denise heard a hard knock at her door. She opened it to find two men in military uniforms — one holding a Bible.
She begged them to tell her that Tom was injured, not dead. They shook their heads “No.”
Denise and Lance Allers’ only child was one of four soldiers killed by an improvised explosive device in the Kunar province of Afghanistan.
The public is invited to his funeral service at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Plainwell High School Auditorium. Afterward, his family, who plan to cremate his body, will hold a private ceremony at 2:30 p.m. at Fort Custer National Cemetery in Augusta, according to the Life Story Funeral Home in Plainwell.
Denise and Lance remember their son as a practical joker, a talented musician and, above all, someone devoted to his family.
Tom was a mischievous little boy growing up in Kalamazoo, Rineyville, Ky., and later Plainwell.
When he was in elementary school, while living on Lake Street in Kalamazoo, he once snuck out of the house to see the street rods at a car show at the nearby fairground. A neighbor noticed his escape, grabbed him, and together they looked at the cars before she brought him back home.
The Allers moved to the Plainwell area when Tom was in third grade and now live in the same home where Denise grew up, off a country dirt road.
For the Allers, their favorite pastime was fishing. They fished for largemouth bass in Crooked Lake in Delton and went ice fishing on Pine Lake outside Plainwell.
Tom was by the water practically all his life.
Once, when he was 6 months old, his parents wanted to go fishing so bad that they brought his baby carrier on the boat. “And two days after that, he had his own fishing pole,” Tom’s uncle Bryan Allers joked.
As Tom grew up, he spent countless hours talking with his family as they fished together. Their relationship was so close that Tom confided to his parents about girls or asked for advice.
“We were best friends,” Denise said, “not just mom and dad.”
Besides fishing, Tom’s other love was playing music.
At age 14, for Christmas, he got his first guitar, the start of a collection that eventually grew to about six guitars. Tom could hear a song, then teach himself how to play it, his mother said.
In his bedroom, posters of Kurt Cobain and the Stone Temple Pilots hang on the walls, as well as two of his guitars.
He played “old school rock ‘n roll and the heavy stuff” during jam sessions with his friends, Lance Allers said.
When the music got too loud, his parents just shut the basement door. “We didn’t care too much for that (heavy stufff),” Lance said, chuckling.
“We just looked at him like, ‘OK, we can deal with this.’ We didn’t get mad at him,” Denise added. “I respected him for what he was doing. He really loved playing the guitar.”
Tom — who also adored spending time with children — did community service during his senior year at Plainwell High School by mentoring third-graders for his favorite teacher, Sue Graving.
In 2006, he graduated. In his senior class picture, he had a beard and wore a hooded sweatshirt.
Over the next few years, he took a few classes at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, worked for his father and then got a job in the kitchen at Joe’s Pizza and Sports Bar in downtown Plainwell.
But he was unsure how to spend his life or what career to choose.
“He didn’t know what he wanted to do. When you’re 18 or 19, it’s hard to make a decision,” said Lance, 44, a steel fabricator for E & B Machine Co. in Otsego.
Out of nowhere, Tom signed up for the Army and then told his parents.
“It was his decision. He was trying to find if it was the answer,” said Denise, 49.
About four weeks later, in April 2010, he left for basic training in Fort Benning, Ga. His parents watched Foxy Roxy, the 75-pound pit bull with floppy ears that their son had spontaneously bought a few months earlier.
“That was a pain for his old man,” Lance joked, although his wife said Roxy has since become their “grand-dog.”
Tom regularly wrote letters to home during his four months of basic training.
In one dated April 29, 2010, he wrote, “Hi Mom and Dad, finally got your letter today! Tried hard not to, but I cried.”
He asked his parents to kiss Roxy for him and wrote about the combat moves he learned.
He signed the letter, “love, Private Allers.”
After graduating from basic training in July 2010, Tom left for Hawaii. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, in Schofield Barracks in Honolulu. Then in April, he deployed to Afghanistan.
The night before he was killed, the Allers talked with their son on Skype for the first time and could see his face on the video screen of their new laptop. Denise could tell her son was nervous because he kept rubbing his head and looking down.
But he asked them questions and tried to act as if everything was normal. “He didn’t want us to worry,” Lance said.
Six hours into the mission, Tom was killed, his father said, according to information he received from the military.
The Allers said they wished their son had received more training and had more experience in the military before he was sent to combat.
As they have waited for their son’s body to be returned to Michigan, the Allers have surrounded themselves with family and said they are amazed by the outpouring of support from their Plainwell community. Signs honoring Tom are posted in front of several local businesses, and a memorial fund for the family was set up at First Community Federal Credit Union branches.
In the Allers’ kitchen, a newspaper clipping from when Tom graduated from basic training and a white board that marked down his deployment schedule are posted on the refrigerator door.
By the kitchen sink, there is another photo of Tom in his military uniform. Some days, it makes Denise cry when she washes the dishes; other days it doesn’t, she said.
But she can’t take the pictures down.
“They’re going to stay here,” she said. “He’s with us.”