Lance Cpl. Thomas A Blair died 10 years ago on a road in Nasiriyah, Iraq.
Blair, 24, of Broken Arrow, was the first Oklahoman killed in the Iraq War. It took a yearlong investigation to unravel exactly what happened that day, but this much was never in doubt — Blair did his duty.
He helped pull nine wounded Marines into an armored vehicle before it was hit by at least four enemy rocket-propelled grenades and then obliterated by a missile fired from an American attack plane.
Ten years after Blair died, family members said they've made their peace with his death, but the sting of it never goes away.
“That is a piece of you that is gone,” said Gunnery Sgt. Al Blair III, his older brother. “It wasn't like a long-term illness or something. One day he is here, and the next he is gone. There really is never a getting used to that.”
First to volunteer
Al Blair Jr. was a Navy man. He expected his boys would be too. But the Navy recruiter who talked with his oldest son failed to impress, so the Marines won the commitment of Al Blair III.
Tommy followed his older brother when he graduated high school.
“The Marine uniform makes them look good,” Al Blair Jr. said recently as he sat in his home in Gravette, Ark., and looked at a photo of his two boys in their dress blues.
“I have always been in favor of military training. It helps young men get their heads on straight.”
The elder Blair never worried that Tommy might not come back when he shipped off to Kuwait before the war started.
He'd been in the Marines five years, re-enlisting after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was one of the first volunteers to go to Kuwait before the war started, his father said.
When military officials informed the family that Tommy was missing, Al Blair Jr. said he assumed his son was still alive.
“I thought he was hunkered down or something, maybe hiding out,” he said. “It never really did cross my mind that he had been killed.”
God's way of taking care of him
It took five days before his death was confirmed. A Marine and a chaplain came to Al Blair Jr.'s office to give him the news.
Blair got calls from governors and letters from across the country — schoolchildren offering their condolences.
“It helped me,” he said. “It made me feel good to know people cared. I would like it if more families got the consolation I got.”
Within a couple of weeks, Blair said he made peace with his son's death. Co-workers were surprised he returned so quickly, but Blair said he knew if he stayed at home, he would mope and dwell on Tommy's death.
Instead, he leaned on his faith.
“Before he left, I asked God to watch over him,” he said. “I came to the conclusion it was God's way of taking care of him.”
Tommy's older brother also tried to move on quickly. He said it helped that he could lean on his fellow Marines.
“I had small children,” he said. “I could not go into a long depressing funk and still be a good dad to them.”
The loss was tougher on the boys' mother. Nancy and Al Blair Jr. divorced when Tommy was 4. Al Blair moved to Arkansas while Nancy stayed in Broken Arrow.
Al Blair III said he did his best to protect his mother. He handled media calls and acted as a family representative whenever he could. Nancy Blair declined to be interviewed for this story.
“I was coping differently than she did,” he said. “It can be difficult. She didn't understand how I was handling it. I had some difficulty understanding where she was coming from on some things. You just have to come to a middle point and accept that everyone is going to handle things a little differently.”
A Reserve detachment of Marines in Broken Arrow helped tremendously, Al Blair III said. They adopted Nancy Blair, looking out for her and offering support at every turn. She still brings them cookies from time to time.
“Being around other Marines kind of helped her a little bit,” he said. “You have to surround yourself with people you care about.”
Trying to save lives
Getting answers about what happened to Tommy Blair also helped, family members said.
The Marines sent Al Blair Jr. two binders full of pictures and other evidence detailing what happened that day.
A forward air controller mistakenly believed the enemy had taken over the armored vehicle that Blair loaded the wounded Marines into. He called in an air strike.
No one knows for certain whether Blair or the other Marines were alive when the Maverick missile blew up the vehicle. It also was hit by tremendous enemy fire, which Al Blair Jr. said he thinks took his son's life before the friendly fire incident.
Both father and brother said they don't blame the forward air-controller faulted in the report.
“If I were to meet him, I would probably shake his hand and give him a hug,” Al Blair III said. “I cannot fault him for doing what he did. He was trying to save lives. They were against a much larger force.”
Making peace or moving on doesn't mean forgetting. Al Blair III keeps Tommy's dog tags in his breast pocket when he attends any function in his dress blues.
Al Blair Jr. is never far from a reminder of his younger son, whether it is the pictures that cover the walls of his home or the banner on his front door with two stars — a blue one representing Al Blair III and a gold one representing Tommy.
“I catch myself remembering I need to not spend so much time dwelling on Tommy's loss and remember I still have a son,” Al Blair Jr. said. “The whole world is not gone.”