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Military News

Altman: Many take personally burglary of disabled veteran

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Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 02:15 AM

To whoever broke into Apartment 515 at the Bristol Place apartment complex in New Tampa: If you are the least bit tech savvy, you've probably already seen the pictures on the MacBook Pro you stole, the ones with the guy in the wheelchair missing a right leg.

The guy in the picture is Thongpane Thongdeng. His friends call him TD.

Let me tell you about Thongdeng, just in case you saw his picture and were wondering what happened to his right leg, which was amputated below the knee. Once you hear the story, you might want to bring the stuff you stole back right quick. Because there are a lot of people who are taking your act very personally.

A St. Petersburg High School graduate, Thongdeng joined the Army in 2007.

"I wanted to jump," said Thongdeng, now 33 and sitting in his wheelchair, wearing a 101st Airborne Division baseball cap.

Thongdeng's journey led him to Forward Operating Base Connolly in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan, near Jalalabad.

On the night of Dec. 2, 2010, Spc. Thongdeng and his comrades 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.

Eventually, Thongdeng and his family made their way back to the area, with Thongdeng an inpatient at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital 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 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.

A few weeks ago, Thongdeng went back into Haley. Still in a great deal of pain, he had to stay there as doctors tried out new medication.

That's where you come into the picture, whoever it was that broke into the apartment.

While Thongdeng was in the hospital, you 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. "I was angry."

So was Connie Trigoe.

A 14-year veteran of the Tampa Police Department, Trigoe was the officer who came to investigate the burglary on Nov. 17. When Trigoe 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," Trigoe said. "I grew up to respect veterans."

Trigoe 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, Trigoe 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 Trigoe. "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."

Thongdeng said he was surprised and joyful at the outpouring of support.

Following the police donation, Operation Helping Hand, an eight-year-old charity group that helps the wounded at Haley, made a $2,000 donation to Thongdeng, who police say lost about $6,000 worth of items in the robbery.

"The man is very quiet and somewhat embarrassed by the situation," said Bob Silah, a retired Navy captain who heads the organization. "He needs help but was too embarrassed to reach out."

Operation Helping Hand is ready to offer more help so Thongdeng and his family can find an apartment until another group, Homes for Our Troops, can build the family a new home once it finds land and a building partner for the project.

Those wishing to contribute can make checks payable to Operation Helping Hand. Mark check for "TD" and mail to Operation Helping Hand Inc., Attn: Bob Silah: PO Box 6383, MacDill Air Force Base FL 33608.

To whomever broke in and stole Thongdeng's belongings – keep looking over your shoulder. You have made the police, the MacDill community and a member of the Screaming Eagles extremely mad.

Three troops were killed in Afghanistan last week.

Lance Cpl. Dale W. Means, 23, of Jordan, Minn., died Nov. 18 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to Combat Logistics Battalion 2, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Sgt. Channing B. Hicks, 24, of Greer, S.C., and Spc. Joseph A. Richardson, 23, of Booneville, Ark. died Nov. 16 in Paktika province, Afghanistan, from injuries suffered when enemy forces attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device and small arms fire. They were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan.

There have now been 2,144 deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation's longest war.

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