In Memoriam: SSG Thaddeus Montgomery

You see it all the time in movies. And the scene is always the same: A wife or a father or a mother gets a knock on the door, and standing outside are two stoic men in uniform. There’s a formal introduction and a brief exchange of words, but the dialogue isn’t necessary. The wife or the father or the mother know exactly what’s happened. It’s the worst possible news.

Yesterday, on January 20, 2010, a woman named Debra Hays received that devastating knock on her door in Florence, Kentucky. A few hours later, at 9:13 p.m. MST, I got a phone call with the same tragic news. Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery, the son of Ms. Hays and a well-respected friend of Arizona Highways, was shot and killed in the line of duty. He was serving his country from a place called Camp Vegas, which is located in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. As I write these words, I’m quietly awaiting the final details of his regrettable death. Meantime, through the tears and the shock and the sadness and the shortness of breath that comes from losing a friend, I’m reflecting on the past six months.

If you’re a reader of our magazine, or if you’re connected to us through social media, you may recall that last fall I got an e-mail from Sergeant Montgomery. He was requesting some copies of our magazine — something that he and his fellow soldiers could use as a respite from the horror around them. Prior to that e-mail, I’d never heard of Sergeant Montgomery, Camp Vegas or the Korengal Valley. But a lot can happen in six months. In that short period of time, I learned a great deal about all of the above, and along the way, Sergeant Montgomery became an inspiration to everyone at Arizona Highways. In addition, he became the face of all the servicemen and women around the world.

It’s a role he never expected and never really wanted. He had no interest in the spotlight that we were shining on him. All he wanted was some magazines. What he didn’t realize was that in the process of reaching out to us, he was connecting an otherwise disconnected group of Americans with a world that seemed a million miles away. Through Sergeant Montgomery, our staff and many of our readers gained a new perspective on the war, and also some degree of enlightenment. Of course, that perspective and enlightenment came with an overwhelming cost. Without Sergeant Montgomery’s face and his name and our personal relationship, the news of his death wouldn’t have felt any different than the thousands of deaths that preceded his in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam and all the rest. But as it is, the shocking reality of his death is hard to comprehend. For us, Thaddeus Montgomery isn’t just a name in a newspaper. Thaddeus Montgomery is a human being, and more importantly, he’s a part of our family.

Like other families, we’ve been aware of the realities. War zones are not playgrounds. They’re extremely dangerous places, but we never dwelled on that. Instead, we focused on the seemingly trivial things. Things like sending beef jerky and Cracker Jacks and peanut butter. It was the least we could do. That said, we know how meaningful it was to the 1st Platoon at Camp Vegas. In fact, shortly after our first shipment of junk food arrived, I got an e-mail from Sergeant Montgomery. He wrote:

“I just want to thank you, Mr. Robert Stieve, and the rest of the folks there at Arizona Highways for the many packages that have begun to arrive here at COP Vegas from the editorial staff at your magazine. Originally, I had asked only for a few magazines that the soldiers here could enjoy thumbing through, and about a week ago boxes began to arrive with tons of good stuff in them. I can’t thank you all enough for the kindness you have bestowed upon our platoon. As for the packages, everything you all sent was absolutely awesome. It didn’t take long for everyone to grab a handful of the things they wanted. Thank you Arizona Highways! We are all grateful for everything you have done to help us while we are away on this deployment. If there is anything I can do in return, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

When I opened that e-mail, I smiled at the humility of the sergeant’s last line: “If there is anything I can do in return, please don’t hesitate to ask.” As if risking his life wasn’t enough. That smile has since turned to tears. I can’t read his e-mails without breaking down. I wasn’t prepared for this. Not just the sadness, but also the regret of knowing that I’ll never have the chance to shake Sergeant Montgomery’s hand and thank him for his service to our country. Although we never met in person, I did have an opportunity to interview him live via satellite. It was an interview that took place on Channel 3 here in Phoenix. Like other military scenarios, there was a formal introduction and a brief exchange of words. We talked for quite a while, but after an hour, the audio portion of the satellite feed cut out, and we never got a chance to finish our conversation. I could see my friend talking, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.

Later that day, in a subsequent conversation with Sergeant Montgomery’s mother, she told me that her son wasn’t much of a talker, but once he got beyond his natural reticence, he usually said something profound. Sadly, I completely missed whatever profound things he might have been saying to me that day. I can live with that, however, because I’m well aware of the profound sacrifice he made on behalf of his country. He gave his life so that magazines like Arizona Highways can enjoy the freedom of speech, along with all the other civil liberties that come with living in the United States. I will never forget that sacrifice, and I’ll certainly never forget Sergeant Montgomery.

On behalf of everyone at Arizona Highways, our condolences go out to Ms. Hays and the friends and family of Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery. On this sad day we lost a friend, a son and an American hero. It was the worst possible news.

— Robert Stieve, editor

SSG Thaddeus Montgomery, left, and Platoon Sergeant SFC Martell at Camp Vegas, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.

27 Comments

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27 responses to “In Memoriam: SSG Thaddeus Montgomery

  1. Thank you for such a sweet tribute to a truly amazing man. He was fantastic and original. I have known no one like him. RIP Thad!

  2. Abby

    As I read you article Thaddeus Sr. called me. I thought for a second this was all a joke. They sound just alike on the phone. I first went with Thaddeus to Arizona back in 1997. We were on our way to Vegas to see his mom. Thad was the best of the best and he loved beutiful places. In memory of Thad I will forever read you magazine. thanks for your kindness you have showed to him and his platoon. Know this, you are truly lucky to have known such a good friend, son, soldier, leader, brother, and father. His smile may be gone but never forgotten. I will love you always!

  3. Becky Milligan Allen

    Thad Montgomery was the kindest person anyone could ever know. I have known him and his family since I was 4 years old, I am now 26. His sister is my oldest and dearest friend. Thank you for doing this. It is wonderful. He will be forever missed yet his smile and his easy going attitude will live on in all that knew him. To show what kind of friend and brother he was, I’d like to share this. He was stationed his Colorado with us at fort Carson. I was going to the hospital to have my daughter and he sat at the hospital from 10 in the morning til 2 in the morning (having to be at work at 6 am) just so he could send his sister pictures (she is my daughters godmother). He is a truly amazing man.

  4. Kari

    Thank you for writing the words that couldn’t make their way out of my head. It is so wonderful that Thad made his way into your life so that through you, many others can come to know and remember him. I’m certain he is smiling his humble smile from Heaven.

  5. Tracey Sykes Chaplin

    Thank you for doing this. It is so important to know that Thad’s life has touched so many people.

  6. Mark Montgomery

    I want to thank you Robert Stieve for remembering my nephew, Thad Montgomery. I can’t stop rereading your memorium to him. I miss him dearly. You will never get to shake his hand, but I hope someday I can shake your hand Mr Stieve.

    Mark Montgomery

    • It would be an honor to shake your hand, Mr. Montgomery. I had a wonderful conversation with Thad’s mom last night. Everyone at Arizona Highways is deeply saddened by this tragedy, but it’s nothing compared to what you and your family are going through. As I told Ms. Hays, we have every intention of staying connected to the boys at Camp Vegas. In honor of Thaddeus.

  7. Tracey Sykes Chaplin

    Hi Robert,

    I was wondering if there is a link to the hour long interview with Thad that you mentioned. It would be so great to be able to have one more visit with him.

    • Todd Martin

      Hi Robert,
      We are going to hold a memorial service this sunday in Thads home town of Decatur, Al. I wanted to know if there was anyway we could show the interview you mentioned at his memorial. Thanks for all the kind words about Thad. He will be missed. Thanks.

    • Hello Ms. Sykes Chaplin. Our team is working on getting permission to post that interview on either our Web site or here on our blog. I hope to have it in place before the end of the day. Our condolences to you and your family.

      • Tracey Sykes Chaplin

        Thank you so much! It truly means the world to all of us. And in the words of our friend, please let us know if there is anything that we can do for you in return.

  8. Debra Hays

    I can’t thank you for the beautiful words written here about our son, Thad. We are so moved by all that you are doing.

    This might be the wrong place to do this, but I am frantic and desperate at this time. Thad was in process of getting Erica Wong to the US to marry her upon returning home. Just a few weeks ago we had gotten the first approval from the US to do so. I need you to contact your local senators, congressmen, to get the US EMBASSY in Malaysia to grant her to travel here for his funeral. Malaysia isn’t the problem it is our own US Embassy not granting this. Thad gave his life for this country, now I ask our country to grant this for him as he would want this.

    • Good morning, Debra. In spite of how difficult yesterday was, it was a great comfort to talk with you last night. I think Thaddeus would be happy to know that we even managed to have a laugh or two. Regarding Erica, I’ll encourage everyone on our end to make some phone calls. I couldn’t agree more: This is the least our country can do for a man who gave his life for our freedom. Be strong, Debra, and remember the words of Khalil Gilbran: “When you are sorrowful, look in your heart again and you shall see, that in truth, you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

      • Starla Voll

        Robert,

        How do I go about contacting you for Debra’s contact info? Also, thank you for what you & the rest of Az Hiways are doing for our troops.
        They deserve so much more than what they get from us for what they GIVE for us. Bless you.

      • Hello Sharla. Debra would love to hear from you. If you’ll send me an email, I can give you the information. My email address is: rstieve@arizonahighways.com

  9. Julie Stone

    What a beautiful tribute to this young man. The part that I think is so sad is how disconnected most of this country is to the military and the sacrifices it makes every day. To many are not willing to make those sacrifices themselves or to support a family member who does. Until you know what it is like to go in harms way, to go 45 days without a hot shower or hot chow or to wait at home knowing that a knock on the door could come at any minute because your son, daughter, mother, father, sister, brother, husband or wife is in harm’s way then you have no clue what military life is like. It is sad that only a few are willing to make that sacrifice for our country. Thank you SGT Montgomery for enlightening some, even if a little, but more importantly for your ultimate sacrifice to our country. But for the grace of God I know this could have been my husband or be my son. May you rest in peace and may your family find comfort in your sacrifice to your country.

  10. It’s a heartbreaking story and my heart goes out to his friends and family. I thank him and his fellow soldiers for my families safety. Thank you AH for spotlighting someone who unselfishly tried to make his platoon’s life a little better. We here honored, even if only for a brief moment, to know him.

  11. Chelsey Wimmer (Martell)

    The man in the photo with Thaddeus is my brother Jordan Martell. Jordan has had a few select people in his life that he considers dear friends and Thaddeus is one of them. They met in Korea 7 years ago and have toured together ever since. The first time I met Thaddeus he gave me that awesome smile that everyone knows. My first impression was that he was genuine. His mannerism, sincerity, the way he carried himself and his thoughtfulness were only a few honorable traits I got to witness the first time we met. Over the years he has spent a few holidays with our family. Including Thanksgiving when he brought cheese cake and wine for myself and my wonderful sister in law, Jessica Martell. (Jordans wife) I remember being amazed at his thoughtfulness. This is only one memory out of a few that I have of Thaddeus. Jordan like so many of Thaddeus family and friends have many memories. I believe in a life time you will be able to count your true friends on one hand and my heart aches for my brother who has lost one of those friends. Jordan had so many wonderful things to say about Thaddeus and their friendship is the kind that many people wouldn’t be able to relate to. Spending years of war together, side by side, does that. I want to thank you AH for continuing to support my brother and the rest of the men fighting beside him. I pray that everyone who reads this remembers our soldiers are out their fighting for each other. Not for the recognition and medals but for each other to stay alive. And to keep supporting all of them.

  12. Starla Voll

    Thad Montgomery………….the name brings a smile to my face, & good memories to mind. I was lucky enough to get to enjoy his kindness & humor for a brief summer several years ago when he came to West Yellowstone to work for Hamilton Stores for the season. He made many friends that season. He came back to visit a couple of years later & was the same ole Thad that I so fondly remembered. I am so very sorry for our loss, as he will be missed by MANY!!
    His family & his country has every right to be proud of him. I didnt know how to contact his family, so I donated to Hope For Haiti, in his memory. Thad, you will never be forgotten!

    • Debra Hays

      Starla, Thad would be honored that you are helping those in Haiti. If you ask Robert, I am giving him consent to give you contact info for me, which I will share with all of Thad’s family, his dad, brother and sister, uncles and aunts, and his grandmother.

      • Starla Voll

        I would love that Debra. I am so very sorry for your loss. Thad was such a positive, sunny, outgoing person. I would very much like to get in contact with you. Thank you.

  13. Pat Newberry

    I was so saddened to hear from my son Brian about Thad’s death. I remember him with fondness and remember the friendship that he and Brian shared. He was so full of life and fun – reading all of these postings I see what a wonderful man he turned out to be. I know he made his parents very proud and I can understand the sadness they must feel. My heart goes out to his entire family. Sincerely, Pat Newberry

  14. Stephanie Evans

    My husband (Jessie Evans) deployed with Monty in October of 2006. Jessie was new to the company and Thad made sure that he felt right at home. He was that guy that everyone wants to meet in there life time and I had the privilege of knowing him. He through barbeques all the time and we would all join him. There was never a dull moment out at Monty’s house in Black Forrest, he gave his home and hospitality to whoever needed it. He was a really good friend and an even better soldier and I will never forget him. My respect and condolences go out to his entire family and his friends. Thank you AH for recognizing him and our fellow soldiers still fighting today…we can’t thank you enough.

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