Monday, June 25, 2018
News Roundup

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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow him @westonphippen.

Comments
USF considering former Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long

USF considering former Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long

While Tom Jurich remains the preferred choice among several prominent USF boosters (and some coaches) for the Bulls' athletic director gig, our intel has revealed another former Power Five AD also is getting a serious look.Jeff Long, who spent nearly...
Updated: 2 minutes ago
Driver who caused crash that damaged Hillsborough deputy’s patrol car was drunk, authorities say

Driver who caused crash that damaged Hillsborough deputy’s patrol car was drunk, authorities say

TAMPA — Panfilo Hernandez Saldana’s drive came to an abrupt end Friday night when he caused a crash that damaged a Hillsborough County sheriff’s vehicle, according to a Sheriff’s Office news release.Saldana, 30, rammed into the back of another car th...
Updated: 10 minutes ago
Top 5 at noon: What’s taking FDLE so long in Jack Latvala investigation? court dismisses suit by Tampa man who claims William Shatner is his father; and more

Top 5 at noon: What’s taking FDLE so long in Jack Latvala investigation? court dismisses suit by Tampa man who claims William Shatner is his father; and more

Here are the latest headlines and updates on tampabay.com.IN JACK LATVALA INVESTIGATION, WHAT’S TAKING FDLE SO LONG?It has been nearly six months since the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation of former Sen. Jack Latvala o...
Updated: 20 minutes ago
Seffner man killed by lightning strike on Siesta Key

Seffner man killed by lightning strike on Siesta Key

A Seffner man was killed Sunday afternoon in a lightning strike on Siesta Key.According to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, deputies responded after receiving a call around 2:15 p.m. of a person struck by lightning in the 6000 block of Midnight ...
Updated: 27 minutes ago
Watch: Gator that visited Brandon stores gets free ride in deputy’s patrol car

Watch: Gator that visited Brandon stores gets free ride in deputy’s patrol car

It’s not rare to see gators lurking around areas across Tampa Bay.What is rare, though, is seeing one slither out of a deputy’s cruiser.Hillsborough County sheriffs handled and removed an alligator that visited a CVS and Speedway at Lumsden Road in B...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Restaurant review: Viva Napoli lovingly recreates Italian cuisine’s greatest hits

Restaurant review: Viva Napoli lovingly recreates Italian cuisine’s greatest hits

TAMPAAccording to Nation’s Restaurant News, Italian continues to be the country’s most beloved ethnic cuisine. I’ve fallen out of love and then gotten moony-eyed again several times over the past decade or so. It’s a cuisine that is manhandled, jerry...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Ex-Bucs DE Keith McCants arrested, facing cocaine charge

Ex-Bucs DE Keith McCants arrested, facing cocaine charge

Former Alabama star and Bucs defensive end Keith McCants was arrested in St. Petersburg early Monday morning and is facing a felony charge of possession of crack cocaine, according to arrest records.McCants, 50, was arrested by the Pinellas County Sh...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Burgeoning trade war takes a toll from Tampa to Turkey

Burgeoning trade war takes a toll from Tampa to Turkey

Associated Press WASHINGTON — A Tampa boat builder absorbs $4 million in lost business and expects more pain. An Ohio pork producer is losing access to a vital export market and fears the damage will last years. A motorcycle shop near Cologne, German...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Harley-Davidson moving some production from U.S. because of EU tariffs

Harley-Davidson moving some production from U.S. because of EU tariffs

Harley-Davidson, the U.S. motorcycle manufacturer, said Monday that it was shifting some of the production of its bikes outside the United States to avoid European Union tariffs imposed as part of a widening trade dispute.The announcement, made in a ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
No Tropicana Field return for Evan Longoria in 2019

No Tropicana Field return for Evan Longoria in 2019

The Rays take their once-every-three- years turn playing NL West teams in 2019. But, based on an early draft of the schedule, won't get to welcome back traded franchise cornerstone 3B Evan Longoria.The Rays will face Longoria's new team, the Giants, ...
Updated: 1 hour ago