The report from the State Department was brief: Thomas M. Jennings Jr., a federal worker from Burtonsville on a temporary assignment with NATO peacekeepers, had died in a car crash in Southern Bosnia.
Fifteen years later, it turns out that was only part of the story.
Unknown to neighbors and friends, Jennings was working for the CIA, the agency acknowledged last week.
A veteran covert officer — he told acquaintances he worked for the State Department — he volunteered to go to Sarajevo after the Bosnian war as a U.S.-led force worked to maintain peace.
Jennings was leading a four-vehicle convoy through unfamiliar territory late on the night of Dec. 2, 1997, when his car swerved off the road and into a creek. The married father of three was 49.
"He wanted to serve," said Vivian Lear Jennings, his wife of 27 years. "They really needed people, and it was a danger zone, and he just stepped up to the plate."
Jennings was one of 15 fallen CIA members honored last week during a closed ceremony at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va.
Their deaths span a quarter-century, from five agency members killed in the 1983 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, to a young officer who died in Yemen in 2008. They include members who were killed in bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in the 1998, the hijacking of an airliner over the Indian Ocean in 1996, and the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998.
Each of the fallen had been represented by a star on a memorial wall in the CIA compound, where their names have been read aloud once a year during a private ceremony for agency members and families. Now their names have been inscribed in the agency's Book of Honor and released to the public.
"They devoted their hearts and minds to a mission unlike any other, at an agency unlike any other, serving on the world's most dangerous frontiers to defend our people, defeat our adversaries and advance our freedoms," said CIA Director David H. Petraeus. "Their words and deeds will inspire us forever, and their service and sacrifice will never be forgotten."
A spokesman for the agency said the cases of fallen members are reviewed periodically to determine when or if an identity should be declassified.
Vivian Jennings knew her husband was in the CIA — he had landed the job with the help of a family connection — but she says he didn't divulge details of his work. She believes he was helping to re-establish the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.
"He was impressed with the Bosnian people," she said. "He was very glad to be there, helping them get back on their feet."
A former Marine, Jennings joined the CIA in 1979, as he was finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland. He took his young family — Vivian and children Maggie, Ryan and Brendan — along on a three-year assignment in Rio de Janeiro and a two-year assignment to Vienna, Austria.
Between the overseas postings, the family lived in Maryland. Jennings had grown up in Wheaton; his wife was from Clarksville. He coached the children in youth baseball and basketball. She taught social studies in middle school.
On a table in her home, Vivian Jennings keeps an award bestowed by the agency after her husband's death. The front reads simply "United States of America." There are also a photograph of him coaching youth baseball in Vienna, the flag that draped his coffin, and letters from Bill Clinton, Leon Panetta, George J. Tenet and other high officials.
She speaks carefully but smiles often as she describes him. He was a moral man, she says, and witty and down to earth.
Early in their marriage, she says, before they had children, one of her students invited her to watch her basketball team. Her husband went, too. When they got there, there was no coach. Thomas Jennings stepped in — and led the team for the next four years.
He would sum up the experience: In fifth grade, they couldn't dribble. In sixth grade, they were better. In seventh grade, they won the city championship. In eighth grade, they didn't want to break their nails.
Vivian Jennings said her husband was a "hands-on" father before it became common. Brendan Jennings, who was at the University of Maryland when his dad died, remembered him as "the best father."
When Brendan was a teen, his father commuted to Langley in a car without a heater so his son could stay warm on his drive to high school.
"He was unselfish," Brendan Jennings said. "He was willing to take on any sort of burden of his own to prevent others from taking on a burden."
Vivian Jennings says it was not difficult to keep his career with the CIA a secret. Some of their friends might have suspected, she says, but none asked.
She herself knew little. "He couldn't tell me," she said.
David Bausch was Jennings' best friend from grade school on. He was Jennings' best man, the godfather of his eldest child, and his eulogist. He described him as "the funniest human being I've ever known."
"He had this unique, uncanny ability to detect something that you were sensitive about and know how to poke fun at it and get you to laugh at it and get over it," Bausch said. "Never in the entire 40 years we were friends did I ever see his humor turn mean-spirited. He had no hesitation or qualms about making fun of himself."
Bausch, who visited when Jennings was posted in New Delhi, says his friend never told him he worked for the CIA.
"He never shared or divulged details about what he was doing," Bausch said. "I think he felt honor-bound by whatever rules and propriety that he had. I did know that he believed very much in what he was doing."
"He loved serving his country," Vivian Jennings confirmed.
Jennings' assignment in Sarajevo was temporary; his family did not join him there. His last letter to his wife arrived two weeks after his death.
He wrote: "Take care of yourself, because if something happened to you, I couldn't go on."
twitter.com/matthewhaybrownCopyright © 2015, CT Now