Lori Coffey never met Marine Thomas “T.J.” Dudley who grew up in York County. She never knew he died in combat in Afghanistan in 2011, until Coffey, the mother of a Marine who served in Iraq, recently went into a thrift store near Tampa, Fla.
Coffey likes to fix old photos and even find the people in them.
The thrift store owner said he had something even better than an old picture that he would give Coffey. Something he could not sell because it was too important.
It was a plaque with an American flag on it, honoring Dudley for his service. It was created by an Air Force unit search team that flew a search and rescue mission in Afghanistan after Dudley was killed.
How or why that plaque ended up in a thrift store, nobody knew. What mattered to Lori Coffey was Thomas Dudley – and his family.
“I promised that I would try and find who this Thomas Dudley was,” Coffey said.
Coffey looked on the Internet and found dozens of stories and columns I had written for The Herald since Dudley died in July 2011. She read of the news of his death in a helicopter incident after six deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. How Dudley was a volunteer firefighter as a teen in Tega Cay and in JROTC. The thousands of people who lined Fort Mill roads before the funeral at Fort Mill High School. The naming of a highway for Dudley after his death.
She found the name of Dudley’s widow, Mary, in the stories, and saw that the couple had three children, Taylor, Carter, and Jenna.
Coffey reached out to me and said, “Do you think Mary Dudley would want this plaque?”
I said, “Let’s find out.”
Mary Dudley met T.J in eighth grade in Fort Mill, and the couple was married after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks – between Dudley’s combat deployments.
Mary Dudley still lives near Jacksonville, N.C., where her husband was based at the time of his death. Since then, she has heroically written about the experiences of how war death has impacted her family for the American Widow Project. The Dudley children and family have been recognized for community service for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, called TAPS.
Mary Dudley has spent the last six years trying to help other families just like hers who lost a hero in war. She said she sure wanted that plaque after the two women exchanged emails and talked on the telephone.
“It is amazing, stunning, wonderful, that this person who I have never met, who never met T.J., would care so much to try and find me,” Mary Dudley said.
Mary Dudley has no idea why the plaque she has only seen now in an emailed picture was in Florida. But that plaque and a woman who found it and cared enough to find her shows what America is all about, Mary Dudley said.
“It is just super cool,” Mary Dudley said.
Lori Coffey in Florida cares so much about getting this plaque to Dudley that she even contacted the Air Force.
“Something so important, I can’t just put it in the mail,” Coffey said.
Plans are in the works for a potential ceremony for the Dudley family – with proper presentation of the flag that flew on the mission to find T.J. Dudley in 2011 after he gave his life for his country.
Lori Coffey said she only did what she believed was right.
“That plaque needs to be with the family,” Coffey said.