Pfc. Thomas Tucker one of two taken by Al Qaida affiliate
Family and friends of of Pfc. Thomas Lowell Tucker, 25, of Madras, are grieving this week after the U.S. military announced early Tuesday morning that two soldiers' bodies were recovered by troops in Iraq.
Tucker, a 1999 graduate of Madras High School, went missing from Yusufiya, about 12 miles southwest of Baghdad, Iraq, just before 8 p.m., on Friday, when his military vehicle reportedly came under attack at a checkpoint.
The driver of the vehicle, Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was killed, and Tucker and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, Texas, were kidnapped by a group affiliated with Al Qaida -- the Mujahedeen Shura Council.
Early Tuesday morning, Oregon National Guard Sgt. Randy Everitt of Albany, who has been with the Tucker family since Sunday evening, commented, "The family is preparing for bad news."
"Iraqi soldiers found two bodies of soldiers in American uniforms. They're being flown to Dover, Del., for DNA identification," he said. DNA identification takes 12 to 15 hours.
Everitt advised the family of the report around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, before the news broke on CNN, although the U.S. Army has not yet made a positive identification.
The family has not spoken publicly about their son, but on Monday, before the CNN report, they issued the statement, "We are praying for the safe return of our son Tom and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, and our deepest sympathy is with the family of Spc. David Babineau."
The bodies of two servicemen were located by troops near an electrical installation early Tuesday, according to reports from CNN and Reuters.
On Monday, Tom Brown, of Madras, a friend of the Tucker family, helped put up a display of flags -- each from a veteran who had died -- in the Tuckers' front yard on the Culver Highway. The Lions Club put up flags around town early Tuesday.
"The family would like to see the community support with flags and yellow ribbons," Brown said.
Tom and Janet Brown have two sons who attended school with Thomas Tucker -- Cody and Jordan. Cody, who was in Tucker's class in high school, is also with the same U.S. Army Division -- the 101st Airborne Division -- deployed in Iraq.
"Our hearts go out to the Tucker family," said Janet Brown. "Tom's a fine young man -- a strong young man physically and mentally, and a good soldier. We're just saying lots of prayers for him and his fellow soldiers."
After enlisting in the U.S. Army in July of 2005, Tucker was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., as a member of B Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. He was deployed to Iraq in February.
Before his deployment, high school buddy Jake Koolhaas, of Madras, recalled Tucker's most recent visit to Madras. "I had dinner with him at the Meet Market after he got back from basic training. He looked great -- he was wearing his uniform. I was pretty impressed."
When they were in high school, Koolhaas said Tucker enjoyed riding four-wheelers out on the Crooked River Grassland, and working on his '71 Chevy pickup. "He found a 350 motor and we spent weeks putting it in there," Koolhaas said.
Josh Richesin, another of Tucker's school friends, had small engine repair with him. "I remember him being into a lot of mechanical things, like cars." Tucker's sense of humor in high school was also remarkable. "He was a jokester," said Richesin, adding that Tucker found the humor in everything.
According to a statement from Tucker's family, Thomas Tucker was born in Prineville, but raised with his older sister in Madras, where he attended school. "Thomas has a great love of music and played the piano," the statement noted.
Classmate Kayla (Hatfield) DuPont, of Madras, was a friend of Tucker's in high school, when they were both in band. "He was very outgoing and friendly," she said. "He was just an all-around great guy."
During high school, Tucker worked at the Tiger Mart gas station and car wash -- his first real job, according to former Madras mayor Rick Allen, who owned Tiger Mart at that time.
"He was always trying to save money for his car," Allen said. "He always had a vehicle to mess with."
Josh Tolman of Madras, who has been a friend of Tucker's since fourth grade, worked with him at Tiger Mart, and agreed that Tucker has always loved "recreational motorized stuff."
Throughout their school years, "We did everything back then together. We grew up hunting and fishing. We had a tight little group in high school," he recalled.
Over the years, Tolman kept in touch with Tucker, meeting with him right before he was deployed to Iraq. "He wanted to go do something meaningful," he said.
Tolman found out that Tucker was missing on Friday afternoon, before the names of the two were released. "It's hard to take it all in," he said Monday. "I don't know what to think about what he's going through over there."
Allen ran into him after he completed basic training, and was impressed with the man the quiet, pleasant boy had become. "I looked at him and thought, `My God, that's Tom Tucker,'" he said.
"He grew up coming to Tiger Mart for Icees; now he's in the middle of an international, worldwide issue. It just breaks your heart," said Allen, who spent most of Monday fielding calls from media, including CNN, Larry King, Newsweek, the Today Show, U.S. Today, as well as state and local news outlets.
California resident Jim Krause remembers well the media attention after his brother Sgt. Elmer C. Krause was lost in an attack on a convoy in Iraq on April 9, 2004.
"We were inundated by the media in the beginning," he said, noting his family's concern that anything they said might be picked up by the people who were holding his brother and used against him.
His brother's remains were found in a shallow grave nearly two weeks later, but Sgt. Keith "Matt" Maupin, who was in the same convoy, is still listed as missing.
"I know what the family's going through," he said Monday, when he called The Pioneer to find out how to convey his sympathy to Tucker's family. "If you haven't gone through it, it's torment. You hope for the best and you worry about what they're going through."
Sunday evening and Monday morning, media descended on Madras from all over the area. "Newspeople were banging on the door at 5 a.m.," said Tom Brown.
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department stepped in to assist the family and ensure their privacy. "Our primary goal is to keep their privacy honored," said Sheriff Jack Jones. His department was contacted by the military Saturday night, and has been supplying deputies to keep media and others away from the house.
At one time, half a dozen satellites were stationed near the intersection of the Culver Highway and Fairgrounds Road, monitoring the home of Wesley and Margaret Tucker. They had dispersed by nightfall, but reassembled Tuesday morning.
School District 509-J has been overwhelmed with media requests for photos and comments, and, at the request of the family, has asked employees not to talk to media, but to support the family by putting out yellow ribbons and flying American flags, according to Superintendent Guy Fisher.
"In a tragedy like that, you need to honor the family's request," he said, noting that Tucker's mother, Margaret, is employed as a cook at Madras High School.
"The family wants everyone to know how grateful they are for the support that they've received," said Everitt, but added that they are not yet prepared to handle non-family visits.
As the mother of a soldier still stationed in Iraq, Janet Brown said her heart goes out to the Tucker family. "This community will do whatever the family needs. Our thoughts and prayers are with them."
A savings account has been set up at Columbia River Bank for the Tucker family in the name of "Bring Tommy Home," to help the family with expenses. Call the Madras Chamber of Commerce at 475-2350 for information on assisting the family in other ways.