Ever since returning from Afghanistan, where he was severely injured when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in 2010, Army Sgt. Thongpane Thongdeng touched a lot of lives in the area’s military community.
A St. Petersburg High School graduate affectionately known as “TD,” he was a fixture at monthly dinners supporting the wounded at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, as well as events for veterans around the area. Two years ago, the Tampa Police Department and community rallied behind him when his apartment was broken into while he was receiving treatment at Haley.
On Monday, St. Petersburg Police, reacting to a call from family members concerned they hadn’t heard from Thongdeng in a while, arrived at his Gandy Boulevard apartment and found Thongdeng, 34, on the floor in one of the rooms. He was dead.
There was no indication of foul play, said St. Petersburg Police spokesman Michael Peutz. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office won’t release a cause of death until after toxicology tests, which usually take six to eight weeks, are completed, according to Bill Pellan, director of investigations.
News of Thongdeng’s death has hit the community hard.
“TD was a soft spoken, very quiet guy, who never asked for anything,” Bob Silah, a retired Navy captain who started the decade-old Operation Helping Hand dinners at Haley, wrote in an email announcing the death. “You will be missed. Rest in Peace, my friend.”
Connie Tregoe, a Tampa Police officer who was among those who donated money to help buy Thongdeng an XBOX and other equipment after his Tampa apartment was burglarized, also felt the loss.
“This is very sad,” she said.
Homes For Our Troops, a non-profit providing homes for wounded veterans, was in the process of building Thongdeng a specially outfitted home in Largo.
“A native of St. Petersburg, TD enjoyed running, fishing and swimming and loved spending time with his family,” reads a post on the organization’s website. “TD was a valued member of the HFOT Family, and we will miss him.”
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Thongdeng joined the Army in 2007.
“I wanted to jump,” said Thongdeng in an interview with the Tribune two years ago.
He was in his apartment, which had just been broken into. He was sitting in his wheelchair, wearing a baseball cap bearing the logo of the unit for which he proudly served — the storied 101st Airborne Division.
Thongdeng’s journey led him to Forward Operating Base Connolly in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan, near Jalalabad. On the night of Dec. 2, 2010, Thongdeng — a specialist at the time — and his Screaming Eagle teammates went to a village to find out what supplies the local police outpost needed. Then they went to another village to speak to elders there.
“We were the third truck in the convoy,” said Thongdeng, who was riding in a lumbering tan vehicle known as an MRAP. “After leaving the village, we came to two semi trucks that seemed to be broken down.” After talking to the drivers, the convoy drove by. It didn’t get very far. About 200 meters away from the semis, there was a tremendous explosion. Not that Thongdeng saw it or heard it.
“I remember waking up and the truck was upside down,” said Thongdeng. “We were in a ditch. Everyone was yelling for help.”
He passed out, waking up more than two weeks later at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. His right leg was mangled. His spine was badly injured, confining him to a wheelchair. The concussive blast gave him traumatic brain injury. He received the Purple Heart medal as a result.
Eventually, Thongdeng and his family made their way back to the area, with Thongdeng an inpatient at Haley while his wife and five kids lived with her parents in St. Petersburg. Doctors tried to save his leg, but the damage was too severe and he underwent an amputation at Tampa General Hospital.
Though his condition was improving, Thongdeng was forced to rent a one-bedroom apartment in New Tampa to be near Haley, where he was still getting treatment. He couldn’t live with his in-laws because the house wasn’t wheelchair accessible and it was too far. His family had to stay behind because, on his salary, he couldn’t afford a place large enough to accommodate seven people.
Some time in early November 2012, Thongdeng went back into Haley. Still in a great deal of pain, he had to stay there as doctors tried out new medication.
While Thongdeng was in the hospital, someone cut the screen to his apartment, walked in, tipped over his big-screen television, stole his new MacBook Pro, his Xbox, lots of other electronics, jewelry and even food from his refrigerator.
“I came home and saw I had been broken into,” said Thongdeng, who was medically retired in April. “I was angry.”
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So were the police, like Tregoe, investigating the case.
A 14-year veteran of the Tampa Police Department, Tregoe was the officer who came to investigate the burglary on Nov. 17. When Tregoe arrived at the apartment, saw Thongdeng in his wheelchair and 101st Airborne hat, she knew this was more than the usual burglary.
“My dad was in Vietnam, my brother in Desert Storm, my brother-in-law is still in the military and has been in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” Tregoe said at the time. “I grew up to respect veterans.”
Tregoe said that, “admittedly, I was a little angry over the situation. He sacrificed, lost his leg in Afghanistan and someone came into his apartment. That angered me.”
Wanting to do something for Thongdeng, Tregoe organized her fellow members of the 242nd Squad in District 2 and gathered up enough money to buy a new Xbox for the wounded soldier.
“When we gave him the Xbox, I shook his hand and thanked him for his service,” said Tregoe. “What humbled me the most was that he said, ‘No, thank you for protecting us on this side.’ That kind of caught me off guard.”
Operation Helping Hand kicked in $2,000 and the community, after reading a Tribune column about Thongdeng’s plight, came up with thousands more.
Thongdeng said he was surprised and joyful at the outpouring of support.
Efforts to reach his family and find out funeral arrangements were not immediately successful.