by Gary Farber
Published this morning in the Valencia County News-Bulletin of New Mexico:
John Casey will tell you the story of his son. He will tell you Thomas J. Casey was always polite and well behaved as a child — had a great attitude, competitive and a team player.
Casey will tell you Tom made it through the rigors of the Albuquerque Academy and graduated cum laude in 1997 from the University of New Mexico with majors in Spanish and Portuguese.
And Casey will tell you the part of his son's story that he dearly wishes was unwritten.
On Jan. 3, 2008, Army Capt. Thomas J. Casey gave his life defending the men in his unit while on a mission in Iraq. He was 32-years old.
In recognition of his actions, the Army awarded Tom the Bronze Star Medal with Valor. His father and family received the medal on his behalf during a ceremony last month at Fort Riley, Kan. The Bronze Star Medal with Valor is the fourth-highest combat award given by the U.S. Armed Forces.
To be awarded the medal with the "V" device, a soldier's team members must give testimony before the Army's Decoration Board.
From that testimony, and the investigative report written about the day his son died, Casey says he has a pretty good idea of what happened out in the "hinterlands" of rural Iraq.
Tom was part of a military transition team — a select group of high-ranking armed forces members whose job it was to train Iraqi regulars in how to run their own police and military operations.
The unit was northeast of Baghdad when a car was seen leaving a nearby village at a high rate of speed, driving erratically. Casey said the convoy followed the car, which crashed into a ditch along a recently plowed field.
Three individuals got out of the car and begin walking across the field. Major Andrew Olmsted, the unit leader, got out of his Humvee and followed them.
The soldiers in the major's vehicle didn't have a good line-of-sight on Olmsted so they drove to the end of the field and turned around in order to keep the major and the three occupants of the car in sight.
"Tom pops out of the second vehicle and sees the major walking across the field. He saw his team leader take fire and fall," Casey said. "He engaged the sniper who shot the major, destroyed the sniper and gave cover fire to try and recover the major. In doing that, he gave his life."
When his son joined the Army, Casey wasn't surprised.
"He was his own man, completely, and knew what he wanted. There wasn't any arm twisting, no 'This is all I have to do.' Every Halloween, he dressed up as an Army soldier or a Ranger," he said. "After he graduated from UNM, he enlisted immediately."
While most college graduates go to officer training school, Casey said Tom wanted to do it like everybody else — he wanted to start at the bottom.
Tom did his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., leaving as a sergeant. Tom then went into the Army's linguistics program and was sent to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., where he met his wife, Leslie.
He was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he went through officer airborne school, then to Fort Benning, Ga., for officer training school. Tom left Fort Benning as a second lieutenant.
He was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., and became part of the first mobile Stryker brigade, a mobile rapid deployment unit, to be deployed to Iraq.
Tom was deployed to the Mosul, Iraq, area with the Stryker unit and was field awarded the rank of captain.
When he returned stateside, he left the Army for the private sector, but within a year he joined the National Guard and from there became full-time Army — again. As a captain, he was stationed at Fort Riley, Kan.
While there, Tom was recruited to a military transition team and after training, he was deployed to Iraq in June 2007.
Casey said that while he understood Tom would be serving in a high-risk situation, "You never think it will come back to bite you. You never, ever think this can happen to your family. I know Tom loved his mission, training. He told me he was making a difference, and he liked that."
Before his deployment, Tom also told his father that if anything ever happened to him, Army officers would show up at Casey's home in Bosque Farms.
When the officers came, Casey and his youngest son, Jeff, were playing golf at Isleta. Jeff, his wife and their first child were visiting for the Christmas holiday.
"We got a call from my daughter-in-law that three Army officers were at the farm," Casey remembers. "Needless to say, I don't know where my clubs are."
By the time they returned home the officers had left, so they were called back. Casey stood in his driveway, awaiting the news.
In the years since Tom's death, Casey says he has grieved and "cried buckets." He is moving on slowly.
"Not a day goes by, I don't think about Tom," he said. "The ceremony at Fort Riley was probably the highest point in the years since he died.
"I was so proud to accept the award for him. But later, I was pretty damn low," he said. "I just looked around and wished all of the friends and family there weren't there for this."
Tom left behind his wife and two sons, Joseph, 7, and Michael, 5. Casey says he sees them every chance he gets.
Because Tom attended Albuquerque Academy, in 2008 the school awarded him the Distinguished Alumni Award. Casey helped establish the Tom Casey Memorial Fund, a scholarship given to a student who best exemplifies Tom's work ethic, integrity, loyalty and perseverance.
The scholarship is funded in perpetuity.
"Tom was a hometown, homegrown, local son that his family and community, state and country should be proud of," Casey said. "When he was in Cub Scouts, he was the first to raise his hand and take the oath. 'On my honor I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country ...' He did that."