ON A TYPICAL Monday, Buddy Allison might putter around the house down in Roy, near Fort Lewis, or maybe work in the yard. "I'm mostly retired," he says, "I don't have a routine." But last Monday wasn't typical. Allison put on a striped tie, slipped into a gray suit, and marched off to bury his son.
Bury, sort of. The body of Army Sgt. Thomas Allison, 22, was lost in the sea off the Philippines before dawn Feb. 22. He and nine other U.S. servicemen were scouting Muslim rebels on Basilan Island, an extension of the War on Terrorism that is centered in Afghanistan and which, as of early this week, has cost 38 U.S. military lives—four from Washington state. Fishermen saw Allison's Boeing MH47-E Chinook helicopter erupt in a fireball and disappear, cause unknown. Three bodies were recovered, none Tommy Allison's.
So Buddy and wife Patricia, pulling a large black coat around her as she held tissue to her eyes, had only a memorial plaque to stare at as they sat under the green canopy at expansive Tahoma National Cemetery in the morning. A few words were said, a 21-gun salute was given, "Taps" was played, and a throbbing Army chopper came in low over the rows of American flags lining the military graveyard east of Kent. An honor guard held a flag over an imaginary casket nearby.
Buddy stayed focused, a rock. He smoothed his gray hair and adjusted his glasses. On a chair in the front row, he determinedly chewed gum and squinted into the sunshine at snowcapped Mount Rainier. A wisp of cloud hung over it. If he lowered his eyes, his son's name was spelled out in flowers.
"I don't know how these parents handle this," whispered James Montgomery, 85, sporting a battered U.S. Army cap. He's a WWII vet, served in the 8th Division under George Patton, and recently buried two buddies here. "They were old guys. You can deal with that. Allison, he was just a kid."
A bright-eyed kid with a rugged build and a gleaming smile in Buddy and Pat's family photos: Grade-schooler Tommy in a plastic helmet playing war or cutting up at church camp—religion was a passion. He's shown with a sweet girl by his side at Washington High in Tacoma, posing with his muddy Blazer 4x4, and with sisters Debbie and Christine and brother Scott, now an Army sergeant. Tom the special operations flight engineer is pictured in the red beret of the Night Stalkers, a skilled, secretive commando force that was seeking to rescue a nurse and an American missionary couple when he died without a trace.
He warned Pat and Buddy about that fatal catch in a 1999 letter from basic training: "I need to say something: For the next six years, I will be more or less away from home. A lot can happen in that time . . . one of those is death . . . and if I do die, I died for God and my country." He recently told them in what proved to be his last goodbye, "Some of us will get to heaven first."
The what-might-have-beens could cause a father hard grief if he dwelled on them. Buddy, though, was busy tending to others outside the Lutheran chapel in Milton later Monday afternoon after a crowded memorial service. He carried an armful of candles into the dining hall for a reception. He fidgeted with pictures, straightened papers, and chatted about his years in the painting business—"off and on, since the eighth grade, since 1949 really." A well-wisher tugged his sleeve. "Oh, I'm holding up fine," he said waving his hand in dismissal. He patted someone's back, and wondered if he could help with the cookies. Must be something he could do. Monday was only half over.