Friday, April 13, 2007

Todd A. Singleton dies after 'contact with enemy forces using an improvised explosive device and small arms fire'

At 25, Stephanie Singleton of Muskegon is starting life over.

A war widow.

On Easter Sunday, her husband -- U.S. Army Sgt. Todd A. Singleton, 24 -- died of wounds suffered when his unit was ambushed outside Baghdad, Iraq, by enemy forces using explosives and small arms fire.

"Who would have thought I'd be planning my husband's funeral?" she asks, her voice almost a whisper.

She looks younger than her years, dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans ripped at the knees, her hair pulled back behind her ears.

"I want people to know he was a good man, a straight-up guy," Stephanie says. "He was very proud to protect me and my family."

Besides his wife, Todd Singleton is survived by their 6-month-old daughter, Emma; his parents, Donna and Arthur Dykhouse and Douglas and Brenda Singleton, all of Muskegon, and numerous brothers and sisters.

As Stephanie Singleton speaks, her long brown hair falls into her face, making her look even more like a teenager -- not a woman who is a casualty of war.

"He was supposed to be coming home on (two weeks leave) in a couple weeks," she says. "This was supposed to be his last mission before coming home."

Her husband was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Calvary Division at Fort Hood, Texas. He was halfway through his second 14-month tour of duty in Iraq.

It was to be a glorious reunion. Todd was deployed with his unit to Iraq on Oct. 29, 2006 -- just three weeks after Stephanie gave birth to Emma.

"At least he got to see her," Stephanie says. "Some (soldiers) don't ever get to see their babies. At least he got to hold her and feed her before ... before ..."

Before he was killed in Iraq.

"We were going to get a family picture taken when he got home," she says.

She only has one snapshot of the three of them together, taken just before he shipped out to Iraq.

When Emma was 4 days old, Todd drove mother and baby home to Muskegon so they could be with family "you know, just in case something happened."

On Wednesday afternoon, Stephanie broke a silence she'd held since Sunday when she learned of her husband's death from military authories.

"Life is never going to be the same," she says. "I don't know where to begin. Whenever I think about him, my heart stops."

Todd and Stephanie met at a school dance when they were both ninth-graders at Reeths-Puffer High School. Someone dared him to ask her to dance, which he did, and the story goes that he fell for her right away.

In 2001, after high school graduation, Todd enlisted in the Army. He was in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., when terrorists struck New York City and Washington, D.C.

Stephanie remembers worrying that her fiance would be sent into combat even though he hadn't finished training.

"He didn't join the Army to be in the newspapers or because the uniforms looked good," she says. "He wanted to serve his country."

On Sept. 24, 2001, after Todd graduated from basic training, the high school sweethearts married. In 2004, four months after being sent to Fort Hood, Todd was deployed to Iraq on a 14-month mission.

When he was at war the first time, he and Stephanie were in contact by e-mail almost every day and talked on the telephone every week. That was not the case during his second tour. Sometimes they'd go two weeks without contact.

Stephanie sent him pictures and videotapes of the baby, but her one regret is that Todd didn't have a camera with him in Iraq.

"I don't have a picture of him ... a recent one," she says. "I don't know what he looked like these last few months."

She looks at the pictures she's saved through the years. His official portrait from basic training. The night they went to a military ball. The day Emma was born, her daddy cuddling her in her swaddling clothes.

"It doesn't seem real," she confesses. "I was in total shock. The reality check will come when his body gets here."

Todd's body has not yet been returned to Muskegon. Arrangements with Sytsema Funeral Homes Inc. are pending.

Stephanie doesn't know when her husband will be buried.

So she waits, clinging to her memories.

On Wednesday, she wrote these words for people to read:

"Todd Singleton was the love of my life. He was a great husband, son, friend and father. He loved his family very dearly. He took pride in serving our country. He will for always be remembered in our hearts. He was my hero, my friend and my first and only love. And I was proud to be his wife and the mother of his child."

Stephanie is making it through these first days and nights by staying busy, by not being alone.

"She's a strong woman," says North Muskegon's Katie Heckman, 26, who is Stephanie's best friend. "I don't know how she does it. I don't think I could."

"I learned to be independent," Stephanie tells her.

Half her married life, she's been alone while Todd was either at war or away on assignment.

"When he was in Iraq, it felt like I was a single parent," Stephanie says.

She looks at at her friend, then looks away, tugging at her hair before speaking again.

"Fact is, now I am one," she whispers.

And for the first, and only time in the conversation, she cries.

"People ask when will the pain go away?" she says. "I don't know. I tell myself I have to move on. I have to do the things my husband would want me to do."

Good memories

Stephanie's soldier loved karaoke.

"Oh, my gosh," she says. "He loved to sing. He was always singing."

Todd's taste in music ran primarily toward Motown, with a heavy emphasis on the Temptations. But the infantryman also had a private side to him that his buddies in the field didn't know. Todd loved to decorate cakes. The guy who drew two tours in Iraq, assigned to areas where the action was the fiercest, was crazy about working alongside his wife in the kitchen.

"Neither of us liked to cook, but we both loved to bake," Stephanie says, and even in her sorrow, she has to giggle. "Sometimes it was like: What do you want for dinner? A cake?"

She baked, and he decorated because "he was the creative one," she insists. They dreamed of opening an in-home bake shop one day so Stephanie could be a stay-at-home mom and take care of Emma.

"I make myself get up in the morning for her. I am so thankful for her. I know I have to be strong for her," Stephanie says. "I have to believe Todd is looking down on us, taking care of us."

From the Chronicle