Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Marine Cpl. Thomas E. Saba

Remember Our Heroes

Marine Cpl. Thomas E. Saba, 30, of Toms River, N.J.

Cpl. Saba was assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Okinawa, Japan; died Feb. 7, 2007, when the helicopter he was flying in crashed while supporting combat operations in Anbar province, Iraq. Also killed were 1st Lt. Jared M. Landaker, Sgt. Travis D. Pfister, Capt. Jennifer J. Harris, Sgt. James R. Tijerina, Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Gilbert Minjares Jr. and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Manuel A. Ruiz

"Their everyday hero"

Family mourns son killed in Iraq

TOMS RIVER — His family asked him not to go back.

But U.S. Marine Cpl. Thomas Saba was "semper fi" through and through. After already serving five years, he re-enlisted in the Marines when he got word his unit was being deployed to Iraq.

Less than two weeks after he arrived, Saba's life ended at age 30, when his Boeing Sea Knight helicopter crashed near Fallujah in Iraq's Anbar province on Wednesday, 20 miles outside of Baghdad. Saba spent most of his tour assigned to the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262, the "Flying Tigers," in Okinawa, Japan.

The January deployment to Iraq was that squadron's first combat deployment since the Vietnam War, and the Saba family said Vietnam War veterans have contacted them to tell them Thomas' death was similar to that of one of their own pilots.

"They said 40 years and 10 days before Thomas's death, the same situation happened, when one of their men re-enlisted over to 'Nam and was in a medevac and was shot down," said Saba's sister, Laura. "They said it was a very eerie coincidence."

Calling Saba "their everyday hero," the family gathered close together yesterday morning at the home of his parents, Barbara and Anthony Saba. Toms River Mayor Paul C. Brush was also there to offer his condolences.

The last time Saba spoke to his parents was the Saturday before his death. He had called them in Florida, where they were vacationing, to ensure they were safe after hearing of the recent tornadoes there.

Laura Saba said she is blessed to have been the last one to spend time with Thomas before he left for Iraq after the Christmas holiday.

"I took him to the airport, and we had a lot of time to talk, and I asked him why he was extending his tour," she said. "He said those were the guys that trained together and were a solid team, and as the crew chief, he said without him the men could go down."

His flight was delayed a day and a half, she said, giving them extra time together at her Highlands home.

"At one time, when his flight was being rerouted, the woman behind the (airline) counter said, "This is not a good sign,' and maybe he should pack up his bags and flee to Canada," she said. "Thomas pointed to a flag and said, "Ma'am, these colors do not run.' "

"He shouldn't have been on the helicopter," said Saba's father, Anthony. "He was bored because they had not assigned his squadron yet, and he wanted to learn medevac (procedures) so he volunteered to fly."

Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, chief operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, said Friday that Saba's crash was caused by mechanical failure, but an investigation is still under way.

Though Thomas Saba was the youngest of siblings — sisters Laura Saba and Mary Ellen Ditczkus and brother Anthony Saba — the family said fellow Marines called Saba "the old man," because of the wisdom and leadership with which he guided them.

"He was the baby in the family, but he was a big brother to them," Ditczkus said. She added that Saba had been accepted into both the New York and Los Angeles police departments, but instead choose to enter the service directly after Sept. 11, 2001.

Aside from being a sibling and son, Saba was the godfather to his nephew Brandon, 16; niece Alessandra, 2; and a close family friend.

"He said it was killing him not being able to watch Alessandra grow up," Anthony Saba said.

As Barbara Saba bounced Alessandra on her knee yesterday, Ditczkus said her brother "always wanted to be a father."

"And when he got out of the Marines, he was going to be an elementary school teacher because he wanted to be a male role model," she said. "Not only are my kids going to be deprived of him, so will other children."

After listening to the family reminisce about their son and brother, Brush recalled Marine Pfc. Vincent Frassetto, who was 21 years old when he was killed in September in Iraq, not far from where Saba's plane crashed.

"Vincent was very much like your son. He died for his country and would do it all over again," Brush said. "It sounds like Vincent Frassetto and Thomas would have gotten along well."

The family said this Christmas with Thomas was a present they will always cherish.

"Tommy was the most excited out of everyone," Barbara Saba said. "He had to light up the Minnie and Mickey lights."

Anthony Saba said though his son had healthy, heated political debates among his family when he was home, he would not stand for bashing of President Bush.

"That is my commander in chief," he would say. "Do not say anything against him."

Laura Saba said her brother went back to Iraq because of freedom.

"He would say, "At least we have the ability to talk against the war,' " she said, adding that her brother reminded his family that Americans tend to take their freedom for granted. "He would say, "The problems over there could be here.' "

But as serious as Thomas was, his family said he was also a jokester.

They showed a picture of Thomas, who tricked one of his fellow Marines by standing with a lampshade over his head, posing as a floor lamp. They also told a story of how he had his friend Jeffery, who is 6 feet tall, paged in a Target store.

"He had them say over the loudspeaker, "Will little Jeffery please report to the front desk if you are lost?' " Ditczkus said, smiling. "That was the kind of thing Tommy did."

The Sabas said that since Thomas' death, they found out he had a MySpace page. With a New York Yankees backdrop and a picture of him standing in Yankee Stadium, the page lists 41 of Saba's friends, who just now are finding out about his death, since his sisters made separate postings.

"My God, Tom, I was just talking to you not too long ago. I knew how excited you were to go! You are in our thought(s) and prayers," one of Saba's friends wrote.

Another friend wrote: "Shocking and sad news to hear. Good guy with a generous heart. You'll always be in my memories. Thank you for what you've sacrificed for us all, with love always, your friend."

Laura Saba said her brother would not want anyone to be sad over his death.

"He died for a cause and something he believed in," Ditczkus added.

Thomas Saba's body was flown to the United States yesterday. The family will hold a wake Thursday at Casey Funeral Home in Staten Island, N.Y. Saba will be buried Friday at Moravian Cemetery in Staten Island.

Brush will attend the funeral and offered the family police escorts to Staten Island.

A scholarship fund is being set up for students at Susan E. Wagner High School in Staten Island, which Saba attended. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, money donations be made to the Cpl. Thomas E. Saba Scholarship Fund, c/o Casey Funeral Home, 350 Slosson Ave., Staten Island, NY 10314.

Marine Cpl. Thomas E. Saba was killed in action on 02/07/07.

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