Maryland Soldier Loved the Army Life

Army Spec. Thomas "T.J." Barbeiri of Maryland had a lifelong fascination with military life. He spent just four weeks in Iraq before being killed in combat. Mary Rose Madden of member station WYPR says friends and family remember a smart, funny man who enjoyed public-service work.

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The American military death toll in Iraq has climbed past 2600. Army specialist Thomas Barbeiri was in Iraq just four weeks before he was killed in combat. His parents and three brothers say T.J., as he was known, was a history buff. From member station WYPR, Mary Rose Madden has this profile.

MARY ROSE MADDEN reporting:

In the D.C. suburb of Gaithersburg, Maryland, Thomas Barberi's family gathers in their kitchen. A friendly pack of dogs lays at their feet. Bagels, coffee and photos of T.J. in his military uniform are scattered on the table. The family is trying to put together a eulogy.

Everyone seems to emphasize the thing that made T.J. in his father words an acquired taste - his dry sarcastic wit. And his mother, Carol Barberi, tells everyone about a letter T.J. sent to a relative a few weeks ago describing what his life was like in Iraq.

Ms. CAROL BARBEIRI (Mother): It started out - she was reading it to the kids and she said, oh, he said this is - it's just like sleepaway camp. We had bonfires we roast marshmallows and make Smores.

Unidentified Male #1: Yeah.

Ms. BARBEIRI: He was always talking like that - silly.

MADDEN: More recently she received a letter from her son that was bit more serious.

Ms. BARBEIRI: We got a letter from him yesterday. He said I just talked to you a couple of hours ago, I couldn't tell you too much about, you know, the mission that I had, and he said, but it will be over before you get this letter. I just want you to know not to worry, it's going to be easy. And the very last thing he said, I can't wait to be home, and then he put three dots and he said, for good.

MADDEN: Everyone at the table talks about T.J's great intelligence. He was reading encyclopedias in the fourth grade, and had an unusual knack for remembering military history.

But after high school graduation, T.J. joined the volunteer fire department in Rockville, Maryland. At the Third Engine Firehouse in Rockville, Robert James worked the Monday shift with T.J. He describes his friend's favorite outfit.

Mr. ROBERT JAMES (Firefighter): The shift started at 5:00 o'clock, right? T.J. used to come in here at 5:00 o'clock with his army coat. He had like one of them army fatigue coats that button down the side. He actually wore the coat on calls. You know, he wanted everybody to know he was an Army man.

MADDEN: That coat, along with his aviator sunglasses, was a typical uniform for T.J. It was part of the reason no one was surprised when he announced he had joined the Army. In fact, his interest in the military went back to his childhood. He loved war films and there is even a photo of him dressed in camouflage for his seventh birthday.

Fellow firefighter Jimmie Ceevee(ph) says the fire department and the army have something in common.

Mr. JIMMIE CEEVEE (Firefighter): The basis behind why a lot of people do it is the camaraderie. We're all like a family here.

MADDEN: Ceevee was often T.J's partner, driving the ambulance on emergency calls. He says T.J. was there when you needed him.

Mr. CEEVEE: He'd always find a way to calm all this stuff if there was a serious event. He always made it a joke to make us feel better.

MADDEN: Now the Barbeiri family is retelling some of those jokes - as they remember T.J. For NPR News, I'm Mary Rose Madden.

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