Thomas Thigpen had an important decision to make seven years ago.
By June 2003, he would have spent 20 years in the National Guard and had to decide whether to re-up. Doing so meant two more years' service for the master sergeant.
He had learned that February that his unit was going to be deployed for the Iraq war. Thigpen and his wife, Theresa, had wrestled with the decision on whether he should stay in or retire. After his unit had been sent to Camp Atterbury in southern Indiana to prepare for deployment, she visited him.
What he told her brought tears to her eyes, and she knew then he had made the right decision.
"He said, 'I cannot let them young guys go overseas without me,' " she said. "He felt like it was his duty to go over there, whether as their sergeant or their father figure."
THIGPEN WAS BORN at Fort Gordon. His father was in the Army, so a career in the military seemed likely from early on. Still, Thomas M. Thigpen, 80, said he was surprised when his oldest son decided to enlist in the Marines out of high school. His mother, Margaret, wasn't keen on the idea at all. During a visit to see him while he was stationed at Parris Island, S.C., the elder Thigpen said it was all he could do to keep his wife from taking her son with her.
"She would have put him in the truck and put him in Canada if I would have let her," he said.
His son spent four years in the Marines. After leaving the Corps, he missed the military and joined the Army National Guard.
That decision would lead to his being part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On March 16, 2004, Thigpen was playing touch football with his men at Camp Virginia, near the vast flat expanse of the Udairi Range in northern Kuwait, when he suffered a heart attack. His unit, the Greenville, S.C.-based Army National Guard 151st Signal Battalion, had gathered at the camp in preparation for their return home after a yearlong deployment.
Thigpen had spent the months setting up communication systems at Camp Doha in Kuwait and running supply convoys into Baghdad. He was just 32 days away from coming home when blockages in his heart triggered the attack.
"They said in the middle of the game he started walking off the field and he dropped to his knees," Theresa Thigpen said. "They first thought he was winded or, you know, short of breath, but he fell face down. They rushed over to him, but they believe he was dead when he hit the ground."
It took about three months for the Army to ship Thigpen's wooden locker back to her from Camp Virginia. His plastic bin had arrived sooner. It had to travel only the roughly 600 miles from Camp Atterbury to her home in Augusta.
When the locker finally arrived the day before Mother's Day, Theresa Thigpen, her daughter, Tammy, and the Army casualty assistance officer assigned to the family looked at the items her husband had carried to war -- a leather jacket, a baseball mitt, a chessboard, a greeting card.
Theresa opened the sealed envelope. The front of the card, the last written words from a husband to his wife, read: "Happy Mother's Day. I hope you know all your hard work has not gone unnoticed."
She flipped it open.
"I've been watching you from the couch during commercials. I wish I was on the couch with you. I love you."
He signed it simply: "Me."
THERESA MET Thomas at a friend's house one afternoon in 1976.
He loved to play chess, and it was his addiction to the game that ultimately led to their marriage.
They would cross paths every afternoon when she picked up Tammy, her daughter from a previous marriage, at the baby sitter's. Thigpen worked with the woman's husband and would often drop by to play chess. When Theresa came to pick up Tammy, they would chat. One day, Thigpen asked their mutual friend for Theresa's phone number.
He was everything Theresa was looking for. He seemed like a good person, and she saw in him the security she craved.
"She gave him my phone number, he called me and we had a date that Friday night," Theresa said.
They had dinner, then visited Thu's Rub It In Lounge on Gordon Highway for a drink.
"The rest is history," she said.
They had a son together; Thomas R. Thigpen Jr., and Thigpen later adopted Tammy.
Theresa said the children still are feeling the effects of losing their father.
Tammy mourns the loss of her dad and regrets he will not get to see his granddaughters Morgan and Madison, whom he called "M&M," grow up. Thomas Jr. was married a year after his father's death and found his father's absence at the wedding particularly difficult.
Thigpen's mother succumbed to lung cancer about four years after her son died and had never expected him to die before she did, Thigpen's father said.
Thigpen knew his mother had been sick, so while he was deployed to Kuwait, he called home every Sunday. His father doesn't know how, but Thigpen rigged the phone so he could spend more than the allotted three minutes talking to her -- a benefit of working in the Signal Corps, he said.
THE LAST TIME Thigpen's parents saw him was on Thanksgiving 2003. He had come home on leave, but he was still concerned about the soldiers he left in Iraq, so he would go to Fort Gordon to call and check up on them.
After Thanksgiving dinner, Thigpen and his father walked down the driveway to say goodbye.
"I said, 'Tommy, go back and do your job,' " the elder Thigpen recalled. "Look left, look right and look behind you. He said, 'Dad, I don't need to look behind me. I've got 200 people watching my back.' "