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St. Petersburg family grieves loss of Army veteran who dies at 34

ST. PETERSBURG — As a young girl she loved mangoes, and as a young boy he shimmied tree limbs to bring her back the fruit.

After he had regaled her with his foraging capabilities, he told her she was pretty, and that "he wanted to get me before anyone else did," recalled Kristin Thongdeng.

Thongpane Thongdeng, or "Gee," as his family called him, got Kristin pregnant when she was 16.

During those nights as teenage parents it was Gee who cradled their child so Kristin could rest.

That was the side of Gee that made planning his funeral so difficult for Kristin.

Gee's brother was last to see him alive on June 28. Gee remarked that he felt a bit off. He had lost his leg serving in Afghanistan, so bad days were not unusual. Then he didn't call Kristin for two days, which was unusual. Police found him on the floor of his apartment bedroom.

A cause of death has not been established. He was 34.

Kristin had begged him not to join the Army when he was 27. By then they had two more kids. But Gee, who was originally from Thailand, had dreamed of fighting for the country where he grew up.

Other military wives told Kristin about the crippling anxiety that accompanied the long blackouts in communication while their husbands left on missions. But Gee called Kristin every day, even when he was not supposed to, only whispering into the phone. He even called the day in 2010 when an IED flipped his Humvee and cut through his leg.

A doctor at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa recommended he stay close for therapy, so he lived on its campus, away from his family. Gee suffered through rehab with a stiff lip and sarcasm. He never let anyone push his wheelchair. He told his kids to come closer and "touch my stump."

Occasionally, Kristin snuck him out of the hospital and together with their children they would go for drives to nowhere in particular. When they'd pass a mango tree, Gee sent his sons up the trunk to fetch his wife's favorite fruit.

His family's home was not wheelchair accessible, so after he left the hospital he had to live with relatives, and later he moved into the first-floor apartment near Gandy Boulevard.

Homes For Our Troops offered to build his family a house that could accommodate his wheelchair. The organization gave Gee a list of possible lots to choose from. At first, none of them seemed right.

They waited. Gee lived in the apartment alone. He went hunting with other veterans. He lost his temper at sudden loud sounds. He stored three fishing poles in his car for he and his sons. He told his wife he planned to kick the pain medication doctors had prescribed him and that he now was dependent upon.

One day Gee and his family drove to a lot in Largo.

Gee knew immediately he had found the spot for his family's home. On it grew a mango tree. It was scheduled to be finished this fall.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Weston Phippen can be reached at wphippen@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321. Follow him @westonphippen.

St. Petersburg family grieves loss of Army veteran who dies at 34 07/18/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2014 7:51pm]
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