Community rallies for family
Candlelight ceremony, procession offer comfort
As Pfc. Thomas Lowell Tucker was returned Monday to his hometown, community residents lined Fifth Street waving U.S. flags and fighting back tears.
Tucker, 25, of Madras, died last week in Iraq, after he and fellow soldier Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, Texas, were kidnapped June 16 from a checkpoint at Yusufiya, about 12 miles south of Baghdad. Their bodies were found June 19. The driver of their Humvee, Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was killed in the initial attack.
The military flew the bodies to Dover, Del., for DNA identification last week, and this week, flew Tucker's remains to the Redmond airport, where his family met him for the final journey home.
The community has rallied around the Tucker family -- parents Wes and Meg, and sister Tayva -- as they have struggled through the past two weeks. Family and friends have consoled them with their presence, cards, flowers, and food, as well as the many tributes set up around town to honor their extraordinary son and brother.
"It's been just amazing -- all the flags, ribbons and reader boards," Meg Tucker, 46, commented on the community's reaction. Even in the midst of the flurry of national media attention early last week, the Tuckers were able to sneak out for a firsthand look at all the signs of community support.
Their employers, Bright Wood Corporation, where Wes Tucker has worked as a millwright for the past five years, and School District 509-J, where Meg Tucker has worked as a cook for nearly 13 years, have graciously allowed them as much time off as they need.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who attended a candlelight vigil in Madras Friday night, ordered all flags at public institutions across the state to be flown at half-staff on Monday in memory of Thomas Tucker.
"Pfc. Tucker was a son of Oregon and a true American hero. We extend our deepest sympathies to his family and thank the town of Madras for wrapping their arms around them," he said in a press release.
"Oregonians are proud to have had Pfc. Tucker as a member of our community and we'll hold him in our memories. His sacrifice is a testament to his honor and courage and his bravery on the battlefield will not be forgotten," he said.
The Tuckers were camping at Burns, when they first got news of their son's kidnapping. They had gone there to take part in the annual old-time fiddlers/country music jamboree at the Harney County Fairgrounds.
Meg Tucker was preparing to perform with the Juniper Clickin' Cloggers, but had a feeling of foreboding. "I couldn't put two steps together," she recalled. "I had a feeling all day that something wasn't right."
She collapsed, inconsolable, in the grass, when she learned of the kidnapping.
Wes Tucker, 51, remained optimistic that they would get their son back. Before the official notification of their son's death, he said it was as if he were in a "coma," hanging on to the 1 percent chance that Tom would be returned to them.
Over the next few days, the Oregon National Guard, which was charged with notifying the Tuckers and helping them deal with the information and issues, fiercely protected them from the media.
Sgt. Randy Everitt of Albany parked his motorhome at the Tuckers, taking turns with other guardsmen in answering calls that came in from across the country. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office assisted by stationing an officer on the Tuckers' driveway, to keep away unwanted news media.
"There are two notepads full of nothing but media calls," said Kay Fristad, public affairs officer for the Oregon National Guard. "It's way bigger than anybody should have to endure."
Although the Tuckers, a close-knit family, avoided most media, they agreed to appear on the Today Show and its affiliate, KTVZ Channel 21, and do interviews with a radio station and two local newspapers, The Pioneer and The Bulletin, last Tuesday and Wednesday.
The family is grateful to the local community, which has reached out to them, and they want to share a sense of who Tom was.
A blue-eyed blond, Thomas Tucker was born May 5, 1981, in Prineville. A cuddly, active child, he talked and walked early, and even in his sleep.
One time, after Meg had taken her son to get a haircut, she noticed that a single hair had been missed, and pulled it out. A toddler at the time, he chided her with his quick response, "Mom, that was my favorite hair."
Tommy and his family moved to Madras from Prineville, where his parents had grown up, when he was a year and a half old.
At night, he usually ended up crawling into his parents' or sister's bed. When he was 3 or 4, Tayva, who is three years older, said she would dance her dolls around on the bed to make him laugh -- which was always easy to do.
Like his father and grandfather, Tucker loved playing music. His parents invested in piano lessons for him from second grade until junior high.
According to his piano teacher, Janet Ayres of Culver, Tucker had a lot of natural ability, and liked to play "jazzy, upbeat things."
A carefree, fun-loving kid, he always wanted to show her what he could play. "After he would play what he wanted to play for me, then it was my turn," she said.
His favorite piano piece was "Man from Snowy River," which his sister played first. "He was always trying to keep up with his sister," Ayres added.
In junior high, he played the saxophone, but took up the trombone in high school for the pep band, at the request of his band teacher Mike Preston. "He switched easily because of his musicality and piano skills," Preston noted.
Music was important to Tucker, and he continued playing piano after high school, said Preston, noting that he matured into a "fine young man."
"Teachers don't always get to see the adults their students become, but Tom would come visit the high school since his mom, Meg, works with us," Preston said, adding that he will miss Tucker's "soft smile and easy-going personality."
Before he left for the U.S. Army, "to show our gratitude that he had finished things -- worked through problems," said Wes Tucker, the family bought him a Woods acoustic guitar.
"He attacked the learning of guitar like he attacked the learning of the trombone or piano," said his dad. "He was just learning to play `The Dance,' (a heart-wrenching song made popular by Garth Brooks) before he left."
Besides music, Tucker enjoyed baseball, basketball, and raising sheep for 4-H, but especially loved working on vehicles, beginning with a push scooter he found when he was 12. The scooter needed tires and innertubes for its 8-inch wheels, but he was confident that he could handle the job.
His dad cautioned him to call for help before inflating the tubes, but Tucker said he could do it and went ahead. The next thing the family knew, they heard a loud noise, and the pictures on the wall rattled.
They hurried to find out what had happened, and Tucker sheepishly confessed, "I think I put too much air in the tires."
At age 14, according to his dad, he traded scooters and go-carts for a shiny, '71 Chevy pickup. It had no motor, but the radio worked, and Tom and his friend Jake Koolhaas spent weeks working on it, putting in a 350 motor.
Wes Tucker offered plenty of assistance. "At 14, I don't know that either one of them knew too much," he said, but Tom was always noticing that something wasn't working right and attempting to fix it.
Like other teenagers, Tucker was inclined toward what his mother called "shenanigans." One day when he was 14, he went over to the Koolhaas' farm and assured his friend's mother that he was allowed to ride their three-wheeler.
Tucker crashed the vehicle into a ditch, injuring himself and damaging the three-wheeler. He spent three days at the hospital in intensive care with a ruptured spleen, Meg Tucker recalled.
When they took him home, the doctor told them that their son had to stay on the couch -- not even getting up to go to the bathroom.
"About two days after he came home, I looked on the couch. No Tom," she said. Meg Tucker searched the house, and, unable to find him, finally went outside. "He had wax in one hand and a rag in the other and was waxing the tires," of his Chevy pickup.
In high school, beginning his freshman year, Tucker and his friends took metal shop and small engine repair from teacher Jerome Mannenbach. It bothered him that his sister -- a senior -- was the teacher's aide for the class, and was showing him what to do, she said.
Nevertheless, Tucker stuck with the classes, and was also a member of the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, according to Mannenbach, who returned to Madras Friday night to speak at the candlelight vigil.
"These kids become like your own children," he said to the crowd of over 1,000 people gathered at Friendship Park. "Every year, the goal was, `Let's make this place better for the next guys.'"
With VICA, Tucker and his friends put together an electric go-cart, which they took to Florence to race. The wheels fell off the vehicle before it completed four laps, but it was a valuable experience for the boys.
Mannenbach said that he and the boys bonded during those years. "Later on, he decided to join up with some other guys to make stuff better for our country. Our kids go to war for us to keep Democracy alive; we need to keep the conversation (about war) alive."
Known to family and friends as "Tom" or "Tommy," Tucker was always sharpening his skills, whether he was playing an instrument, taking photos, woodworking, making people laugh, or putting up a retaining wall and helping landscape his parents' front yard.
"Tom was good at anything he did," said his mother, displaying a scrapbook of scenic photographs he took while visiting relatives in Arizona.
During high school, Tucker worked at Tiger Mart for a while, and at Les Schwab one summer putting studs in tires. He rode a dirt bike and raced his mother's Buick Skylark at the Madras dragstrip.
He loved to go camping and fishing with his family. For his 18th birthday, his father took him on a guided fishing trip on the Columbia River. "There were three or four of us, but he caught the only keeper," said Wes Tucker.
"When we go fishing, it's not to catch a fish; it's just being together," his dad pointed out. "After he'd been out in the world and saw that family values are important, he was there at the drop of a hat."
While he was still in high school, his sister married, moved to Bend, and had her oldest son, Tanner, 8. "He went to the hospital with her the last day of school his junior year, and then drove back home because he had tests to take," Meg Tucker said.
Tom was always available for his sister Tayva and his two nephews, Tanner and Tyson, 4, whom he called "my boys."
"When the boys' dad would work swing (shift)," she said, "Tommy would often stay the night with me to keep me company."
He stayed involved with both boys. "Whenever I needed him, he was there," Tayva said, noting that she's not sure that they understand what has happened, but, "The oldest wears his Army hat around."
After Tucker graduated in 1999, he held several jobs, including work at Cliff's Auto Repair and Bright Wood Corporation, but became particularly adept at working in construction framing houses.
One afternoon over a year ago, work was slow and Tucker was let off early. He returned home and sat down to watch some television. When a U.S. Army recruiting commercial came on, he got up and called the recruiting phone number.
Within an hour and a half, before his parents returned home, the recruiters were there. "He said he wanted to do something positive with his life," said his mother.
Tucker enlisted in the U.S. Army. In July of 2005, he left for boot camp at the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga.
The muscular, 5-foot, 10-inch, 190-pound young man returned to Madras for several weeks at Thanksgiving, impressing family and friends with his appearance.
"The first thing he did when he got home from boot camp was pick me up and throw me over his shoulder," said Tayva, who loved to wrestle with her much larger brother.
After the interlude in Madras, Tucker, who was based at Fort Campbell, Ky., as a member of B Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, was deployed to Iraq in February.
"We were scared to death," said Meg Tucker.
"Scared, but very proud of him, because he was treating this as a job," Wes Tucker said, adding that Tom was always a hard worker.
From Iraq, Tom Tucker called his family regularly, expressing his love for the family in phone messages. In one message, still on their answering machine, he told his family, "Be proud of me, Mom, I'm defending my country."
The Tuckers are still struggling to come to grips with their son's death. "It was hard; it was very hard," Meg Tucker said Monday.
"I don't have any comfort yet," she said. "In my mind, I haven't got to a place where I feel very comfortable."
Both said they are comforted by the friends and relatives who have surrounded them. "As long as we have family and friends here, we're doing OK," said Wes Tucker. "The hardest time is when everyone goes home and when we wake up in the morning."
They realize that he's considered a hero. "I'd rather he wasn't," said Meg Tucker. "We're proud, but we'd rather have him than that."
In a sense, Wes Tucker said, "He's not our son anymore. He's everyone's son."
Everyone's son, Pfc. Thomas Tucker, will be put to rest on Saturday. The funeral service will be at 1 p.m., July 1, at the Deschutes County Expo Center, followed by private interment at Mount Jefferson Memorial Park Cemetery in Madras, and a gathering at Madras High School for family and friends.