Fallen hero's back on duty once more

On the third Thanksgiving since losing her husband at the World Trade Center, Tara Stackpole read aloud to their three youngest sons an E-mail from Iraq that told of a miracle. The E-mail had been written by a soldier who had been best buddies with their father since Fire Capt. Timothy Stackpole was himself a boy.

"Happy Thanksgiving to you and the family," the E-mail began. "I carry Timmy's picture with me every day, not that I need it to remember him. It is helpful when people start feeling sorry for themselves or start doubting why we are here. I then tell them a story, and take Timmy's picture out."

The story the friend tells his fellow soldiers is of a New York City firefighter who was terribly burned in 1998. Timothy Stackpole could have retired on a tax-free disability pension amounting to full pay, but he was determined to return to the job he loved.

Stackpole spent three often-agonizing years of therapy and exercise until he accomplished what many had thought impossible. He returned to full duty only to be killed by the collapsing south tower exactly six months later.

Now, two years afterward, his childhood buddy was telling his story and showing his picture to soldiers who had become dispirited by the ordeal in Iraq.

"There is not much whining after that and people move out with a sense of purpose," the E-mail reported.

The childhood buddy went on to say that he had felt Stackpole looking over him when he found himself much closer to an explosion than anybody would ever want to be.

"Not only did he shield me from the bomb blast, but he was also kind enough to cover my ears as most had ringing of the ears and some blown-out eardrums," the E-mail reported. "A true miracle, as I did not get a scratch and not even ringing of the ears."

The next sentence was as heartrending a sentence as was ever written. Tara had difficulty reading aloud the 10 simple words.

"I wish I could have done the same for him."

Those words were followed by a half-dozen blank lines, as if there was nothing that could be said immediately afterward.

But the writer could not just end there. The message continued and the start of the next sentence had two dropped words. The writer's nerves then seemed to steady.

"Most Americans are the kindest and [most] generous people [on] Earth, as demonstrated by those here in Iraq, and your family back home."

Tara read on.

"I consider myself the luckiest man on Earth to have the family and friends I do. I have a lot to be thankful for, and you and your family are a big part of that."

Tara then came to another tough sentence.

"I pray you are doing well and have tears rolling down my cheeks thinking of the empty place at your table."

The E-mail ended as quietly as a falling teardrop.

"God Bless You and your family and I look forward to seeing you soon."

Tara happened to have heard news reports of the particular explosion the E-mail mentioned. Some instinct had told her at the time that her husband's buddy had been there.

"I know he is," she had told a friend. Then, when she checked her E-mail, she saw the childhood buddy's screen name in the address column. The message had been sent at 12:18a.m. on Nov. 27, the first minutes of Thanksgiving.

"Subject: Happy Thanksgiving."

Watching over loved ones

Tara has one son off in the Navy and a teenage daughter who was off being a teenager. Tara read the message to the three youngest, and afterward they trundled to bed with the knowledge that their father was still on full duty, if not fighting fires then looking over his boyhood buddy and steadying our soldiers in a distant war.

Of course, those duties in Iraq never for an instant keep Timothy Stackpole from watching over his family. Dad was certainly with his youngest son when the boy awoke to his ninth birthday yesterday.

Dad will also be there today when the 12-year-old and the 11-year-old play a big football game. Dad will be rooting for a touchdown in Brooklyn even as he keeps half an eye out for bombs on the other side of the world.

Originally published on November 30, 2003