My name is Mary Dudley and I am married to SSgt Tj Dudley. We met when I moved to SC in the 8th grade. We were great friends right away. Throughout high school, he was always the one I turned to. I could tell him anything and he never judged me. He always made me feel at ease.
Tj left for boot camp in December 2000. It was all he ever really wanted to do with his life. He was in the ROTC in high school. While he was at boot camp, we wrote letters. I wrote him one time about my boyfriend and how we were having a difficult time, he just wrote me back and said that it didn’t matter because I was going to marry him anyway. I thought he was saying it to make me smile, he was saying it because he meant it, or that’s what he told me later on.
In January 2001, everything changed for us. He came home on leave before being stationed in Japan and things were just different. He was telling me about a cross country trip he took on a motorcycle with some of the guys and we were talking about what we wanted out of life. He asked me to dinner for later that evening. It was the first time I was nervous about going to dinner with him. We’d gone a hundred times before but this time, I was so nervous. We went to a mexican restaurant and then back to his house to watch a movie. He asked me to wait for him while he was gone for a year. I said I would. It was this evening, that I fell in love. I knew he was who I wanted to spend my life with. I remember going home and telling my little sister that he was the person I was going to marry.
At the end of that year, he chose to stay another year in Japan. We talked and agreed that if we wanted to see other people, we could and we both hoped the other didn’t fall in love because we really wanted a chance to see what could happen between us. Towards the end of that second year in Japan. We both knew that we just wanted to be together. We were on the phone constantly, sometimes for hours and in between phone calls, we were emailing when he was at work or I was at school. He had only been home twice in the two years he was already in Japan and while he was over there, he deployed twice. Then we got the news. He was being forced to stay for a third year in Japan. I remember feeling like we would never get our chance to be together. It was a hard two years with him in another country and we had to do one more. He came home in April of 2004 and we had our first kiss, our first “I love you” face to face and a week later, in my moms driveway, he asked me and my daughter to share the rest of our lives with him. We said “yes” He headed back to Japan while I planned our wedding. 7 months later, he flew back home and we got married on November 27, 2004. All my dreams came true. I was married to my very best friend.
In January of 2005, he was stationed in Jacksonville, NC and he deployed to Iraq a month later. When he came home in August 2005, we finally were able to live together. Finally able to be a family and start our lives together. I was just happy to be in the same country. We also found out that we were expecting. During my pregnancy, Tj was at WTI, so he missed 3 months of my pregnancy. We had our son in May 2006. Then he immediately started work-ups for his next deployment and 7 months later, in January 2007, he was deployed again. We spent a lot of time apart, we fell in love through phone calls and emails, so long distance across the ocean was a piece of cake for us. He came home in July 2007.
He started work ups a few months after being home and He deployed again in August 2008. He had to come home in November for emergency leave. It was a devastating time for me, for us. I was lucky enough that the Marine Corps felt it was bad enough and sent him home for 3 weeks. I thought that time in our life was the worst thing that could have happened to our family. He made everything seem like it was going to be okay. Tj was always there for me. I can’t ever recall a time where he wasn’t by my side when I needed him, I can’t recall a time where he wasn’t there for me. On our 4th anniversary I found out I was expecting another baby. He came home from that deployment in March 2009. We bought our first home in April. We had our little girl in August 2009. To us, life was perfect. Our family was complete, our hearts were full. We were more in love than ever. He was supposed to be non-deployable for 3 years. He was gone so much, he was ready to be home for a bit. He joined the volunteer fire department. In March 2010, we found out he got orders and was going to deploy to Afghanistan by the end of the year. I was mad. I just wanted my husband home. He was home for 21 months between deployments and that was the longest we had ever been together since before he left for the Marine Corps.
In December 2010 he was elected as Captain of the fire department and won Officer of The Year putting in 350 volunteer hours. He was also deploying, he was supposed to leave on the 26th but NC had a snow storm. It was the most snow NC had seen in years. Enough that they pushed the leave date back another day. We spent that day building snowman, our youngest saw the snow for the first time. We got our “one more day”. He didn’t have to pack or run to the store for last minute items. It was an entire day with just the 5 of us, having fun. It will forever be the most cherished and happiest day of my life. It was the last time we saw Tj alive. We dropped him off early the next morning. Had I known it would have been our last kiss, our last moments, our last hug.. I would have held on a little longer. My daughter snapped a picture of our last kiss. I had taken a picture of each of them hugging their dad and she thought I’d want one too. I had no idea how special that picture would come to mean to me. Our last moment together is literally, caught on camera.
On July 7th, 2011 it started like any other day. I was up past midnight emailing Tj pictures and sending a quick letter before I went to bed. The kids and I were on vacation in South Carolina visiting family for the holiday weekend. Around 11am I went upstairs to get ready to head out on some errands I needed to do while my sisters took the kids swimming for the afternoon. While I was upstairs, there were three knocks at the door…..with three sharp dressed men in uniform. A uniform I had not seen in months and it was the uniform no mother or wife wants to see while their son and husband is serving their country. My sister came upstairs and said “Mary there are three guys at the door for you” and I said “I don’t know three guys, what do they look like” and she just looked at me and said “Mary, they are in uniform” and at that instant, in that moment, I knew. I picked our youngest up and squeezed her and just shut my eyes for a moment, somehow I knew holding her would give me the strength to get through the next five minutes, although they felt like hours. I walked downstairs and opened the door and just asked them to give me a moment while I got my kids out of the house. I asked my sisters to take all the kids out the back door and not to come back in the house until I said so….I know in their hearts, they knew as well. I went and opened the door for the three men and I gripped my baby girl as tightly as I could while I walked to the couch.I knew I needed to be sitting. They stood in front of me, I shut my eyes and instantly started praying while I just put my head to hers as the guy asked me if I was Mary Dudley and Married to Thomas Dudley and when I said yes, he started saying “On behalf of the United States Marine Corps I am sorry to inform you that your husband, SSGT Thomas Dudley was killed in action this morning”. I sat there, numb as I had ever felt in my entire life, it felt like I wasn’t in my own body, just sitting there in utter disbelief that this was happening. Praying to God to give me the strength. I just kept saying “this can’t be happening, he should be home in two weeks” “I just heard from him last night” and all I could do was sit there, motionless, holding our precious 23-month old daughter. How was I going to tell my 4 and 13 year old that their daddy wasn’t going to come home. My amazingly beautiful husband and father of my children was killed in action at 10:57 am in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. All I could do was just sit there while every single person around me was full of tears, shortness of breath and looking at me with such pain in their eyes and all I could do was sit there and hold Jenna and shake my head….no tears, just shock. Killed In Action. Not Coming Home. I still can’t believe I am typing those words, nearly 18 months later.
I went to Delaware. It was bittersweet that finally after nearly 7 months, my Marine was coming home, not exactly how I pictured it but he was finally back on American soil…and he was the ultimate definition of a hero. He laid his life down for everything I hold dear.
Our final good-bye. I remember staying up thinking “how do I tell him good-bye, how do I put into words everything that I could say to last an entire lifetime. How do I help his children give their final good-bye. He gave me 16 years of memories and love, we were the best of friends. We were two people perfect for each other. I always said I had no idea how two people were made to be so perfect for one another. We had our moments but we would argue and laugh at the same time. I told him how much I was sorry and I knew he hated this as much as I did.
The auditorium was filled to capacity…over 1,000 people in attendance to say their final farewells, They had to turn people away. This man who I was married to was pretty phenomenal, to look around and see the love that filled that room, it made my heart swell with pride and honor. I’m every bit of a Marine Wife, who is incredibly proud of the Marine that my husband was, incredibly honored that he loved me just as much as I loved him and blessed that he was an incredible father. The life Tj had, was worth celebrating. He didn’t have to worry about if he made a difference, I found out at his funeral, that he changed hundreds of people’s lives…including mine.
There is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss my husband. I never imagined that this would happen. I don’t feel like we had enough time together but yet the time that we did share together, was enough to last me a lifetime.