On the still-ascending arc of a promising young life, a few major life events defined Tommy McNeeley more than any others.
All entailed choices made, as well as the encouragement of others. Rescued from homelessness in high school, he would become an intelligence analyst in Africa and Iraq.
Mr. McNeeley died May 17 in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where he was stationed. He was 37. He leaves behind his wife, a daughter, 19, and a son, 3.
He moved his family to Tampa in 2007 from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, where he had wrapped up nine years in the Air Force, finishing with the 820th Security Forces Group as a staff sergeant.
He worked for the technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, then as an analyst of African affairs for defense and security contractor Northrop Grumman.
Away from work, Mr. McNeeley lent his efforts to the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association, the crazy theme parties he threw and a group of fellow Cleveland Browns fans at the Green Parrot Pub. None of that would have been possible without the help of his mother.
Patrick Thomas McNeeley III was born in 1978 in Brook Park, a Cleveland suburb. Unhappy living with a stepmother, he dropped out of high school and started working. For a while, Mr. McNeeley lived at the video store where he worked or on the streets.
His biological mother intervened, took him in and helped her son get a high school equivalency degree. That was turning point No. 1.
Mr. McNeeley enlisted in the Air Force in 1997. He was sent to study electronics but flunked out. The Air Force gave him a closer look and transferred him to military intelligence, where he flourished.
Yet another turning point came early in 2001. While stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Mr. McNeeley was in Club La Vela in nearby Panama City, Fla., when he noticed Stefanie Stuckett, a tourist from London, Ontario, who was sitting alone.
“He said, ‘You don’t look like you are having fun,'” said Stefanie McNeeley. “I wasn’t.”
They married in 2002. Mr. McNeeley, his wife said, was “the kind of guy who, when people met him, they felt like they had known him. He was outgoing but was also an incredible listener.”
The Air Force sent him to Iraq four times in the mid2000s. As an intelligence analyst, he judged risks. It was impossible to predict every situation, but he took it hard when another service member was injured or killed. Mr. McNeeley began working for private security firms after leaving the military. He and his family spent 2013 at Royal Air Force Molesworth, a British air base.
Next he was stateside, awaiting a lengthy background check before he could start working for another firm (his wife asked that this company not be identified) in Iraq.
While waiting to start that job, Mr. McNeeley took his wife to Africa, which he had seen several times. Back home, they took a seven-month, 33,000-mile family road trip.
They drove to the Grand Canyon and back. Twice the McNeeleys went to Canada and back to Florida. Along the way, they picked up a Little Guy Teardrop Trailer on eBay and headed out to Glacier National Park.
They stayed in free campgrounds, overlooking the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco or in front of a friend’s house in Vancouver.
“We traveled very much by the seat of our pants,” Stefanie McNeeley said. “Every morning when we woke up, we had no idea where we were going, or where we would sleep that night.”
The trip culminated at Burning Man, a weeklong festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
Mr. McNeeley was cleared to work at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. On May 17, he was found unresponsive in a men’s room. Authorities pronounced him dead.
Mr. McNeeley had no known medical issues, his wife said. She is awaiting the results of an autopsy.
At home, she said she is still in shock, half-expecting Mr. McNeeley to call her cellphone. She has picked up a rescued chihuahua mix they had selected together but not yet named. Meanwhile, the refrigerator is covered with magnets acquired at every park or place of interest from their camping trip last year.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” she said. “We just didn’t know it at the time.”
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.
* * *
Patrick Thomas “Tommy” McNeeley III
Born: March 6, 1978
Died: May 17, 2015
Survivors: wife, Stefanie; daughter, Astrid; son, Logan; father, Patrick McNeeley; brother, Tim McNeeley; half-siblings Madeline and Matthew McNeeley; and grandmother, Margaret McNeeley.
Service: Visitation 7 to 8 p.m. Friday, Florida Mortuary Funeral and Cremation Services, 4601 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa. Funeral at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Seminole Heights United Methodist Church, 6111 N Central Ave., Tampa.
How to help: A website to contribute to the family of Tommy McNeeley has been set up at gofundme.com/uux2b6x.
PHOTO: Tommy McNeeley, 37, worked as an intelligence analyst.
Times Publishing Company