Thomas Thigpen’s military service began in the Marine Corps during Vietnam as a helicopter mechanic and ended in Kuwait in 2004 as a member of the Army National Guard.
Thigpen, a master sergeant, was just months away from retiring when he received the call in February 2003 that his battalion in Greenville, S.C., had been activated for combat. He filed an extension for service and went along with his unit to Camp Doha, Kuwait in April. His wife of 26 years and the mother of his two children couldn’t understand his decision.
“I asked him, ‘why are you doing this?’ ” Theresa Thigpen recalled.
Her husband responded that his soldiers were young and needed his help. The Columbia County resident’s devotion to duty wasn’t surprising given that he was born at Fort Gordon and was named after his father Thomas, who was stationed there.
“That’s what they sign up for,” she said. “That’s the ultimate act for a soldier.”
Thigpen reported for duty at Camp Doha in April 2003. His job was to disperse soldiers to various jobs and locations according to their ability.
After nearly a year, he and the other soldiers reported to Camp Virginia, Kuwait to begin cleaning equipment and preparing to return to the U.S. But following a physical training exercise in March 2004, Thigpen had a massive heart attack and died. He was 52 years old.
Her husband had no medical history regarding his heart, Thigpen said.
She said his medical record showed a visit to the medic in October 2003 where he complained of chest pain, but it was determined to be acid reflux.
About three months after his death, Thigpen received her husband’s locker from Camp Virginia. The contents included a leather jacket, baseball mitt, chessboard and a Mother’s Day card Thigpen had bought for his bride.
She received those items the day before Mother’s Day. She also received a phone call from then Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and a letter from President George W. Bush expressing their condolences.
Thigpen said there are still good and bad days. She quit her job after his death and went back to college and tries to stay busy with hobbies like traveling. Her two children and three grandchildren keep her busy as well.
“You look for someone who will replace your husband, but you’re not going to find it,” Thigpen said. “You find a new normal.”