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Fort Mill mourns loss of Marine killed in Afghanistan

From the Helmand province in Afghanistan, Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Joseph Dudley's email to his wife, Mary, on Wednesday night was simple: "I love you."

"I had told him he didn't have to email much, just say, 'I love you,' and let me know he was OK or just an exclamation mark," Mary Dudley, 29, said Friday.

She couldn't sleep that night, so at about 1 a.m. Thursday, she began to email her husband, a 2000 Fort Mill High School graduate, pictures of their three children - Taylor, 13, Thomas Carter, 5, and Jenna Robyn, almost 2.

Mary Dudley isn't sure he ever received those photos: Thomas Joseph Dudley died after he came under ground fire at about 2 a.m. Thursday. He was 29.

Known as "T.J." by family and friends, Dudley's time in Afghanistan was his sixth deployment, serving as crew chief with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264, also known as the Black Knights. He was set to ship out for that mission Dec. 26, 2010, but a snowstorm gave him an extra day at home - a day he spent building a snowman with his children. He left for Afghanistan on Dec. 27.

Dudley was scheduled to return home in two weeks, with plans for a family vacation in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., a birthday celebration for Jenna at a water park - maybe even a trip to Las Vegas with Mary.

Instead, on Friday, family and friends gathered at the Fort Mill home of Mary's mother's to mourn the loss of a son, husband, brother, father and best friend.

Flags in Fort Mill and Tega Cay were lowered to half-staff in memory of Dudley.

"He truly loved his family and this country," said Tega Cay Mayor George Sheppard. "We will never be able to pay his family back for this sacrifice, and we are forever indebted to him and his family."

'A great Marine'

Born in Rochester, N.Y., Dudley moved to Tega Cay as a boy with his family and then to Fort Mill. He was very close with his siblings - Jameson, 21; McKenzie, 19; and Bryn, 18.

Jameson Dudley, who also has enlisted in the Marines, said Friday he remembers the time his older brother pulled his tooth out.

Leaning against a kitchen counter, Jameson shook his head with a slight smile on his face as he talked about T.J.

"I made the mistake of saying my tooth was loose," he said Friday. "Then he said, 'Come here,' and pulled it right out."

Then his face became solemn.

"He was the finest Marine," he said. "He was not only a brother-in-arms, but a brother. And I miss him very much."

Dudley became interested in enlisting while at Fort Mill High School. He played football his freshman year before joining the school's Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps and drill team.

Inspired by 1st Sgt. Stephen Sprague, who helped start the JROTC program at the high school, Dudley enlisted at 18.

It was at boot camp in 2002 that he met one of his best friends, fellow Marine Gunnery Sgt. Ryan Smith.

"T.J. was a great man and a great Marine," Smith said. "He was a true leader and touched a lot of people. I looked up to him."

During his time in the Marines, Dudley was deployed twice to Okinawa, Japan, and four times to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dudley received several awards and distinctions while serving, including an Air medal, a Korean Defense Service medal, an Outstanding Service medal, campaign medals for Iraq and Afghanistan and a Humanitarian Service medal.

"Great man" is a phrase T.J.'s mother, Robyn Dudley, said she has heard often since her son's death.

"It was something I knew," she said. "But to see everyone expressing their appreciation for him, his love for what he did, has been a comfort."

'He could make you laugh'

Many talked Friday about how much Dudley valued his family. And if you were T.J.'s friend, you might as well have been family, said brother-in-law, Kyle Kessinger, 35.

Which means you better have been ready for his pranks.

Kessinger, Dudley and others traveled to Hilton Head Island and ate at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. Kessinger ordered some chicken fingers, and, unbeknownst to him, Dudley told the cooks to put on the hottest sauce they had.

"I went to dip them in ketchup, and everything just turned to water," he said, laughing. "I looked over, and Dudley and the two cooks were laughing."

It wasn't uncommon for Dudley, Kessinger and other family and friends to hop into the 1973 Jeep CJ7 he'd fixed up and take a trip - on a whim, Kessinger said.

And you couldn't expect to be in a bad mood around him, said family friend Michelle Puckett, 28.

"If you were ever sad, he could make you laugh," she said. "You couldn't be in a bad mood; he wouldn't allow it. He'd find some way to make you laugh or smile."

Michigan, USC fan

The last big family-and-friend hangout Kyle Kessinger and Paula Kessinger, one of Dudley's sisters-in-law, could recall was everyone watching the Ohio State-Michigan football game in November.

Dudley was a big Michigan fan, while his wife, Mary, is an Ohio State fan - "a house divided," Kyle Kessinger joked.

Dudley also was a huge University of South Carolina Gamecocks fan.

'All-American love story'

Family and friends said Dudley was a good father and husband.

"He became the most wonderful man, husband and father that a mother could ever ask for," said Robyn Dudley.

Sister-in-law Katie Kessinger said T.J. and Mary had an "all-American love story."

The two met in the eighth grade after Mary and her family moved from Ohio. They were friends, best friends. They would spend a lot of time talking in Dudley's Jeep, sipping milkshakes or playing pool.

"I knew when I was 18 I was going to marry him," she said.

As Dudley prepared to ship out in 2002 for Okinawa, he asked Mary to wait for him.

The two kept in touch through emails and phone calls, and when he had time off and returned stateside, they spent more time together.

But May 3, 2004, was different.

Dudley was home for leave during his deployment. He asked Mary's mother that morning for permission to marry her daughter.

When Mary pulled out of the driveway to head to classes at York Technical College, he stopped her.

"I was pulling out of the driveway, and he said, 'Wait, when you get done with school, I have to ask you something,'" she said. "Then he changed his mind and kneeled down and put the ring on the wrong finger.

"I knew without a shadow of a doubt he loved me."

Mary said friends described the engagement as "a long time coming."

They were married in November 2004. Dudley returned overseas after their marriage.

"It's hard, but there's no other option," Mary said of the time they had to spend apart. "He's the man I love."

That's why she made sure to sign her emails with this quote: "Distance is not for the fearful, it is for the bold. It's for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone in exchange for a little time with the one they love."

By August 2005, Dudley was back and the family was living in Jacksonville, N.C., where he was stationed at the New River Air Station.

Dudley made sure to attend as many soccer games and practices as he could for Taylor and Thomas Carter.

He volunteered with the Haws Run Fire Department in Jacksonville - becoming a captain and winning Officer of the Year - and every Saturday took Thomas Carter with him to wash the firetrucks. He also took his son with him every other Sunday for a haircut and rode him around on the lawnmower.

And Jenna is a daddy's girl.

She adores a small blanket with a picture of her and Dudley on it that reads, "I love you," and when Mary presented it to her Friday, Jenna grabbed at it.

"Daddy!" she squealed with delight.

Visits via Skype

Dudley often talked with his family via Skype, and Mary recorded some of their conversations on her phone. During one of the last Skype visits, Jenna ran up to the computer screen. She wrapped her arms around it as much as she could and planted a big, wet kiss on the screen.

"I love you, Daddy!" she yelled at the screen before laughing.

Watching her daughter with the blanket on Friday, Mary wiped a tear away.

"I could talk about that man all day," she said. "God, I love that man."