Mourners celebrate 'a full life'

Michael D. Thomas, who died in action in Afghanistan, is laid to rest.

Published May 6, 2007

BRANDON - It ended here under the arching branches of an old oak tree, with the hum of traffic in the distance, and the sorrowful notes of a single trumpet playing taps.

The story of Michael D. Thomas' life began not so far away, where he grew up in Seffner, a kid with boundless energy who loved to skateboard, wrestle and sit for hours picking out a rock song on his electric and bass guitars.

On Saturday, at the funeral for the Army Special Forces staff sergeant, family and friends sought to recapture the essence of the 34 years packed in between.

"He lived a full life," said Craig Jorgensen, who called himself Thomas' best friend, who grew up a few houses down from Thomas in Seffner.

Thomas was a wild spirit who mastered two types of guitars, the drums and just about any sport he tried - baseball, basketball and football.

"You always wanted Mike on your team," Jorgensen told Thomas' wife, children and more than 100 family members, friends and military personnel, including Gen. Bryan D. Brown, commander of Special Operations Forces, during the service at the Stowers Funeral Home's Brandon chapel.

"Mike was an all star in every sense of the word," he said.

They remained close friends, even after Thomas graduated from Armwood High School in 1991, joined the Army and went off to Korea with the military police.

Jorgensen received e-mails from Thomas with photos attached. Amid military fatigues and sniper rifles, Jorgensen would catch glimpses of Thomas' Metallica wristband or his Tampa Bay Bucs cap.

A prankster, Thomas loved to surprise friends and relatives with unannounced visits home.

Once, he jumped out of the closet at one of his sisters'. Another time he startled Jorgensen, knocking at his bedroom window. "He liked to be goofy," Jorgensen said.

He volunteered

Thomas was protective of his sisters, Krista, 24, and Cassie Kirkpatrick, 23. Krista's husband, Jaye Bridwell, recalled the day he met Thomas.

Bridwell had been dating Krista and sleeping in a spare room in the house. Thomas, arriving home on leave, woke him up with a punch to the ribs.

"My day began with a beating, followed by a 5-mile run and career counseling," Bridwell said.

The two became great friends. They talked cars and visited pawn shops together. Thomas loved looking for stuff no one else wanted.

When Thomas volunteered for the Special Forces, he had already served with military police for 13 years. He should have been nearing the end of his career, in relative safety. But he wanted to be on the front lines.

At 32, he worried he was too old, Bridwell said. But he made it through training and deployed to Afghanistan with the 7th Special Forces Group, Airborne, as a weapons sergeant.

Bridwell said he could see from photos that Thomas loved the job "like a pig in mud."

About a month ago Bridwell was having a bad day, then Thomas left a message on his cell phone, just saying "Hi" and making funny noises.

"He was laughter therapy for sure," Bridwell said.

Family's memories

The news arrived to Teresa, his wife, and the rest of the family in late April: Thomas was killed in a firefight during a combat patrol.

Thomas' stepdaughter, Diana Garcia, 21, said it pained her to know that her daughter, 17-month-old Alexis, would never know "my greatest hero."

Memories washed over her, she said: playing Monopoly and Uno and yelling at Thomas to stop biting the cards; listening to radio stations until late in the night and being the only two callers to phone in requests to the DJ.

Thomas would call her and tell her about a new guitar or amplifier he'd just found, she said.

"At times like this, life seems so unfair, " she said. But she had faith she'd see Thomas again some day.

The last to speak at the service issued a soft voice from behind the lectern, as he stood to the side of the flag-draped casket and framed portrait of Thomas.

"My father was a very silly man and - good, " said his son, 8-year-old Craig, pausing to get the words out.

"He was the greatest father in the world. And I just cannot believe this is happening," he said, in the direct and heartbroken words of a child.

"He died doing what he wanted to do and doing what he loved. He died for all of us," Craig said. "He was just a great father."

Craig bowed his head and walked back to his seat, his hands in his pockets and chin to his chest.

The cry of bagpipes called the crowd outside. A military honor guard escorted the casket. The family and friends followed, filling the funeral home's front lawn and wraparound porch.

A 21-gun salute pierced the air, and then taps. The honor guard folded two flags, presented them to Thomas' wife and mother. Then the guard lifted Thomas' casket into the elegant white hearse. Craig and the family watched in silence, and began to weep, as the hearse moved across the parking lot, pulled into traffic, and drove away.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 813661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.