Soldier killed in Iraq remembered as amiable, hard working
By CAROL HOPKINS , Of The Daily Oakland Press 01/07/2004
Soldiers from the 88th Regional Readiness Command salute the casket of Staff Sgt. Thomas Christensen. Daily Oakland Press photo/GARY MALERBA
January 7, 2004
HIGHLAND TWP. - He loved fishing and flavored coffee. He was movie-star handsome, his sister reported. When he slipped on sunglasses, people told him he looked like actor Kevin Costner.

On a bitterly cold Tuesday morning at a rural Highland Township cemetery, family and friends huddled near the flag-draped casket of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Christensen, the 20th Michigan soldier to die since combat started in Iraq last March, and said their farewells.

Christensen, 42, died in a mortar attack on his living quarters on Christmas night in Baqouba, Iraq.

At the cemetery, the crack of the 88th Regional Readiness Group's rifles during the 21-gun salute sent wild birds fluttering. In a below-zero wind chill, a bugler played "Taps." Soldiers folded the casket flag and handed it to the soldier's father.

Christensen was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal and Army Commendation Medal.

Also killed with Christensen Christmas night were Staff Sgt. Stephen C. Hattamer, 43, of Gwinn, and a soldier from Illinois, Staff Sgt. Michael Sutter. Another Michigan soldier, Staff Sgt. Joe Tormala of Chassell, was wounded. Gov. Jennifer Granholm ordered flags across the state lowered Tuesday through Thursday in honor of the fallen men.

While Christensen most recently lived in Atlantic Mine, Mich., he was buried in Highland Township, home of his father, Thomas Christensen Sr. and stepmother, Mary Lou.

Also surviving are his mother, Janet Sprey, and his sister, Heidi, both of Scottsdale, Ariz.; two brothers Chris, 47, of Detroit and Norman, 41, also of Arizona. Christensen was also the stepbrother of Ruth Ann Stover, Nancy Clay, Barbara Betzing, Donald Clay, Richard Clay and Peggy Wicks. He had one nephew, Derrick Thomas Lee.

His funeral was held at Highland Congregational Church.

Born in Livonia, Christensen enlisted in the armed forces at age 19. Heidi Christensen said her brother was very duty-minded, even when he was a little boy.

He devoted a total of 18 years to the armed forces - including two tours in Germany, where he was a technician on the Patriot and Hawk missile systems.

After receiving special training in Minneapolis at Fort Snelling, he was sent to Kuwait with the 652nd Engineering Battalion.

After the invasion of Iraq, he was sent to a base in Baqouba, where he rebuilt bridges. The 652nd has a reputation for a very high esprit d'corps, Army officials at the funeral said.

"Once a soldier is there awhile, they generally stay," said Bill Geddes, Army spokesperson.

While he was out of the military, Christensen, the grandson of a master carpenter, refurbished a firehouse in Detroit.

"He was very much into construction. He could fix anything," Heidi Christensen said.

Christensen was amicable and self-disciplined, his eulogizers said.

"He rose early, worked hard and was in bed by 9 p.m.," said Highland Congregational Church Pastor Gary Evans.

"He loved nature," added his sister. "He was a fisherman and he enjoyed his solitude. He was very comfortable in his own skin."

While in Iraq, he and a few others bought a satellite dish to make it easier for he and members of his group to communicate.

"I always heard, 'My guys need ...' " Heidi Christensen reported. "He was always saying that."

She said her family was "sorrowful but proud, we're all very proud. He defended our freedom. He loved America."

Sgt. Christensen is an honored soldier, said Brigadier General William C. Kirkland, commanding general of the 88th Regional Readiness Group. "He has completed his mission, the one he was called to do."

©The Oakland Press 2004