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Soldier's risk proves fatal

At 34, a Thonotosassa soldier dies in Afghanistan after 13 years as an MP.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published May 1, 2007


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photo
Staff Sgt. Michael D. Thomas was stationed in Afghanistan as a member of the Green Berets.


THONOTOSASSA -- His family called him Bubby, but the name on his uniform was Gramps.

At 34, Michael D. Thomas was the oldest man in his Army Special Forces unit. When he volunteered to be a Green Beret, he already had served 13 years with the military police. His career was supposed to be winding down.

But Thomas wanted to fight.

"I feel like I'm a football player sitting on the sidelines, " he told his stepfather. "I have to get in the game."

On Friday, weeks after his deployment to Afghanistan, Thomas was killed in a firefight during a combat patrol.

"He loved being there, " said his mother, Debbie Kirkpatrick. "He just wanted to help."

On Monday, Kirkpatrick sat at the kitchen table in the family's Thonotosassa home, remembering her first-born.

As a kid, he was always in motion, Kirkpatrick said.

He had a hard time in school, but it wasn't because he was dumb. It was because he was too smart, his mother said.

When he graduated from Armwood High School in 1991, Kirkpatrick encouraged him to join the Army. It would pay for college, which she couldn't do. And, she hoped, it would "settle him down."

After basic training, Thomas was stationed with the military police in Korea. He tried to time his trips home to correspond with the Bucs training camp.

He'd sneak into the house unannounced to surprise his little sisters -- "my girls, " he called them. He doted on them, considered himself their protector.

On one trip home, he found that his older sister, Krista -- then in high school -- had a boyfriend sleeping in the spare room.

Thomas woke the kid up with a punch to the ribs.

Then he invited him on a five-mile run.

Halfway through, the boyfriend, Jaye Bridwell, was on his knees under an orange tree, puking. Thomas was running backwards in slow motion.

But when they got back to the house, Thomas told the family that Bridwell had won the race.

"Jaye kicked my butt, " he said.

That was how Thomas was: tough but sweet, too, said Bridwell, who later became Thomas' brother-in-law.

"Six-foot-two, and a bigger heart than anyone I ever met, " he said.

When Thomas decided to volunteer for Special Forces, Bridwell -- now a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy -- said he understood the attraction.

"We have something in us that drives us, " he said. "Not toward danger, but if we think it's going to make a difference, we do it."

Kirkpatrick begged her son to reconsider.

He had only three years left in the service. He had a wife, Teresa, and two children, the youngest just 8. As a military police officer, he was relatively safe.

"Why do you want to take a chance?" she asked him.

Thomas stood firm. He wanted a place on the front line.

"Don't be sad for me if I don't come back, " he told his mother before he left in March. "Have a party, laugh, and remember how much I loved everyone."

In Afghanistan, he found himself surrounded by poverty he had never imagined.

He asked his mother to send clothes and shoes for the people he met. He and a buddy pooled their money and bought a sewing machine for an Afghani widow who had no livelihood.

He sent home pictures of himself standing in a field of opium poppies, and on his knees sewing up a civilian's wound.

Kirkpatrick said it's hard to believe her son will not come home.

His sisters, she said, still almost expect him to slip into the house like he used to do. They keep thinking that they'll turn around and he'll be there.

Thomas leaves his wife, Teresa, his children, Diana and Craig, his sisters, Krista Bridwell, 24, and Cassie Kirkpatrick, 23, and his parents, Debbie and Robert Kirkpatrick.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.

[Last modified May 1, 2007, 00:21:53]


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