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WEDNESDAY, MARCH 7, 2007
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Military town hit by tornado copes with losing students

ENTERPRISE (AP) — Chief Warrant Officer Bill Tompkins was in Iraq when he got the call to come home and do something no parent wishes to do: bury his son, who was killed along with seven classmates in a hallway when a powerful tornado wrecked Enterprise High School last week.

In a packed sanctuary where many mourners wore military green, 17-year-old Michael "Mikey" Tompkins was remembered by his father's Army colleagues Tuesday as "one of ours."

Five of the eight students killed at the high school had ties to Fort Rucker, the Army's helicopter flight training base that borders Enterprise. It marked a reversal for the community in southeastern Alabama, which is now coping with the unexpected deaths of children instead of soldiers.

"You don't think of those kinds of possibilities, because it's not supposed to happen to them," said Ricky Davis, who served with the elder Tompkins in Desert Storm and is now stationed at Fort Benning, Ga.

"You expect the possibility to happen to you when you're overseas and in a war zone," said Davis. "You never think that anything like this is going to happen to your kids, so you have that feeling of: 'My family's safe, they're not in a war zone like I am, so they should be fine.' You just never dream that anything like this could happen."

He said the role-reversal of burying children instead of combat-trained soldiers has hit the community hard. Fort Rucker, home to about 6,000 service personnel, trains about 1,150 helicopter pilots each year and recently has had to cope with a series of fatal downings in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Mikey Tompkins was remembered as an amazing athlete with mean dancing skills which he put to use as a member of the school's show choir.

Attendees also recalled Tompkins' goofy side as shown in a video clip of him dancing that's circulating on YouTube and a MySpace page.

"I've been asked many times how I can still have a smile. The answer is: God is still in control," his father said. "I know without a doubt where my son is ... he's dancing before Jesus, you all know he is. But hopefully it's not the one on YouTube."

A community-wide memorial service is scheduled at Fort Rucker Wednesday morning. Counselors and chaplains have been made available for families there, Eichhorn said.

Davis' son attends Enterprise High and grew up with Mikey Tompkins, whose navy blue casket was topped with mementos from playing on his school's baseball team, including his glove, a baseball, 19 jersey and baseball cap. Three students, including Bowen, were buried Monday and a joint service was scheduled Tuesday for best friends Andrew Joel "A.J." Jackson, 16 and Ryan Andrew Mohler, 17, who died together in the hallway in a storm of bricks and concrete as a wall and the roof collapsed.

Arthur Cole, who is stationed at Fort Rucker and only knows the Tompkins family through a mutual friend, said it's like he lost nieces and nephews at the high school because he considers fellow service members as brothers and sisters.

"People didn't realize how much of the military was affected by the storm and it will take us a while, but we'll move forward. It'll get better," he said as he helped arrange chairs for a luncheon after the service.

Davis spoke for many across the Army community Tuesday, saying they would close ranks in support of the families who lost children that day. "Mikey was like one of ours," he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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