Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Man dies after losing control of pickup in Dade City


    Times staff

    DADE CITY — A man died Friday after he lost control of his pickup truck through a bend in the road and collided with an oncoming car, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

  2. Teens recorded drowning man and laughed, but face no charges


    Authorities say a group of teens who watched, laughed and made a video as a man drowned in a retention pond can be charged with failure to report a death.

    Jamel Dunn, 31, drowned July 9 in Cocoa.
  3. After huge sinkhole opens, residents weigh future with unease

    Public Safety

    LAND O'LAKES — The wood floors creak each time Kendra Denzik dashes inside her darkened home to grab fresh clothes. She can't help but panic when they do.

    Eleven families along Ocean Pines Drive in Land O’Lakes homes are fenced in due to the massive sinkhole from last Friday on Thursday, July 20, 2017. The Doohen’s are among 11 families who had to evacuate from their homes.
  4. Tampa Club president seeks assessment fee from members


    TAMPA — The president of the Tampa Club said he asked members last month to pay an additional assessment fee to provide "additional revenue." However, Ron Licata said Friday that the downtown business group is not in a dire financial situation.

    Ron Licata, president of the Tampa Club in downtown Tampa. [Tampa Club]
  5. Under Republican health care bill, Florida must make up $7.5 billion


    If a Senate bill called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 becomes law, Florida's government would need to make up about $7.5 billion to maintain its current health care system. The bill, which is one of the Republican Party's long-promised answers to the Affordable Care Act imposes a cap on funding per enrollee …

    Florida would need to cover $7.5 billion to keep its health care program under the Republican-proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.  [Times file photo]