Tribute to Tommy

'The world will know you as a soldier. ... You were so much more.'

OVER HERE - Martin, Tenn.

April 30, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

Inside Murphy Funeral Home and Florist, in an old, four-columned mansion built on a grassy knoll overlooking the railroad tracks, the body of Spc. Thomas Arthur Foley III lay in a flag-draped coffin. The war in Iraq, which had seemed so far away, came home last Wednesday to Martin, a town of 10,500 in northwest Tennessee. By Friday, the day of the funeral, nearly everyone knew Tommy was back.

His widow, Paulette Foley, sat in the row of wooden chairs nearest the casket while their 7-month-old son, Logan, slept on her shoulder. Tommy's mother, who sat near Paulette, stared ahead toward a table that bore pictures of smooth-skinned Tommy in high school; Tommy wearing a lopsided grin at his wedding; Tommy looking somber and serious in his Army uniform. The "Me-Maw" who raised him, Tommy's grandmother, stood by the pictures and the frosted-glass floor lamps that flanked the coffin and thanked everyone for coming.

The crowd grew so large that the funeral home director pulled extra chairs from a closet and asked the people standing along the walls, brushing against sprays of red, white and blue carnations, to please move to the chapel so the 17 soldiers who had come from Fort Campbell, Ky., could walk to the coffin and salute Tommy. Many of the friends who filled the chapel and then spilled into the front parlor, onto Victorian settees and low velvet chairs, had known Tommy when he graduated from Dresden High School in 1999, and they came to his funeral wearing band jackets and class rings.

Tommy turned 23 on March 1, the day before his unit, the 101st Airborne Division, left for Iraq. The war was all but over by April 14, when a grenade exploded inside a Humvee at a check point south of Baghdad, killing Tommy and Pfc. John Brown, who was 21 and from Troy, Ala., and spraying two other soldiers with shrapnel. The U.S. Army labeled the explosion an accident. Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, reportedly used the incident and two other fatal accidents to remind troops that while the fighting appeared to be behind them, Iraq is still a deadly place.

Tommy's body was flown from Iraq to Germany and from there to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. A captain from Fort Campbell who had volunteered for the duty escorted the body on a flight from Philadelphia to Memphis, then drove a rental car behind the hearse two hours north to Martin.

Paulette chose Murphy Funeral Home, instead of the one in Tommy's hometown of Dresden, because it was closer to the small cemetery where Tommy had told her once, between bowling and movie dates, that he wanted to be buried beside his granddaddy.

Paulette never imagined this day would come so soon, not even after he was deployed - and certainly not after Saddam Hussein's statue fell, and the war seemed all but over.

Tommy was in the 2nd Battalion of the 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, and his job was to shoot down enemy missiles. Paulette had watched CNN all day long at first, until her parents convinced her she was worrying herself sick, and she cut back to twice a day: once when she awoke and once before bed. The news was on at her apartment at Fort Campbell and the baby sleeping when her doorbell rang at 10 p.m. April 14. Two men, a chaplain and an officer, stood outside in dress green uniforms. Paulette knew they bore bad news; she almost shut the door in their faces.

The preacher who married Tommy and Paulette just a year and a half ago read something during the funeral, written by a friend of the family. The words compared America to a great river. "The life of every American resembles a drop of rain," he read. "Each drop falls into the tributary of a family, and these tributaries become the branches of a hometown ... The terrorists who attacked America have caused the drops of rain to swell and breach the banks. The smaller streams have become one with each other, and the river feels the strength and loss of each and every drop of rain."

Tommy told his uncle, Gene Courtney, that he joined the Army because it offered him opportunities he wouldn't find in Weakley County, where manufacturing plants have closed with bitter frequency the last few years. Tommy had seen an uncle, an aunt and his Me-Maw lose jobs they'd held for decades when a cowboy boot factory padlocked its doors. Someday he would be a high school teacher, Tommy told Paulette. Before he left for Iraq, he talked about becoming a policeman. Another time, he considered making the Army his career. "That was just Tommy," Paulette said. "He couldn't make up his mind."

"The world will know you as a solider," Preacher Corey Sawyers, of Macedonia Church of Christ, said during the service. "We can only hope they understand you were so much more."

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