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A Lesson in Acceptance

Teacher Grapples With Bookish Soldier's Path to Maturity

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page B01

CLICK TO PLAY AUDIO: Thomas Tobin remembers his former student, Thomas Doerflinger, who was killed in Mosul, Iraq. (Audio by Amanda M. Zamora - washingtonpost.com; Photo by Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)

_____In This Series_____
Bonds of Brotherhood, Pierced by War
Looking for Logic Amid the Pain
A Marine's Choice, A Mother's Conflict
70 Lives: A Portrait of Fallen Neighbors: Since the start of the war in March 2003, more than 1,500 members of the U.S. armed forces have died. Many of them were from the District, Maryland or Virginia.
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Fourth of five articles

They met through Springbrook High School's Catholic Club when Thomas Doerflinger was a sophomore. During one of the club's first meetings, the students got into a rambling discussion about the meaning of time, and Thomas Tobin, a popular English teacher who was the club's faculty adviser, wasn't quite sure in which direction to steer it.

For most of the talk, Thomas had been quiet and detached, as if he were in his own world, and Tobin was beginning to wonder whether he was following along. Then, during a lull, Thomas volunteered St. Augustine's thoughts on the matter -- that God sees all of time in a single moment -- and Tobin recalls thinking, "Wow, you have that on the tip of your fingers at 16?"

It was the first time Thomas impressed his teacher. Over the next few years, there would be other times.

The two became close, closer than Tobin had ever been with a student, and soon Thomas was coming over for dinner and babysitting for Tobin's children. One Sunday a month, the Catholic Club at the Silver Spring school would spend time with the residents of a nursing home. And by senior year, when Thomas was in the advanced International Baccalaureate program, he took Tobin's English class.

But as tight as they were, Tobin never understood one thing: Thomas's decision to join the Army shortly after graduating from Springbrook in 2002.

Spec. Thomas Doerflinger (AP)

Thomas seemed almost too gentle to be a soldier, Tobin thought. He was too mild-mannered, too slight; his clothes often seemed to hang from his lanky frame.

He was the quiet intellectual, a fan of Dickens and Donne who once gave the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's autobiography as a gift and who chose as his confirmation name Maximilian Kolbe -- in tribute to the saint who gave his life in exchange for a young father and husband chosen to die in a Nazi concentration camp.

Thomas never seemed to study, or to pay attention in class, but still he managed to wow the teachers. How far could this kid go, Tobin wondered, if he just applied himself? And how was this reticent, bookish boy going to fare in the Army?

But it was his laziness, Tobin later surmised, that drove Thomas to enlist. He was struggling to become more motivated and thought the Army would help.

"I never quite got it," Tobin said. "But he did really want to learn discipline, to become more responsible."

Thomas had been accepted at the University of Maryland for the spring 2003 semester, but already he had started showing signs of edging in another direction. His mother found a ticket stub to the Mel Gibson war movie "We Were Soldiers" that Thomas kept in a shoe box with other personal treasures. At a Halloween party, he showed up in military fatigues, which surprised his friend Kirsten Ederer. "I always pictured Tommy as a pacifist philosopher for some reason," she said.

Tobin pictured him as a college student.

"What I enjoy about Thomas's pieces is that he is not mechanical about completing assignments," the teacher wrote in one of Thomas's college recommendations. "He does not write simply to grind out the assignment, but he always exhibits a thoughtfulness that makes his papers more refreshing."

Before he left for basic training, Thomas promised Tobin he'd continue reading the classics. And he later reported to friends that the Army was having the effect on him he had hoped for.

"I know you hate my being in the army, and I can't say I really care for it either, but in a way I'm glad that I joined," he wrote in an e-mail to a friend, Christina DiPasquale. "It's hard to form a real opinion on something you know nothing about, and I have to say I didn't really know about the army before I was a part of it."

His e-mail continued: "And in some ways I feel it's made me a somewhat more mature person, as in i'm more responsible and independent than I probably would have been by now in college. Had I stayed in school continuously, chances are I would have just continued in the downward spiral in motivation and work ethic that started in middle school for me."

At home from the military while on leave, he talked proudly about the futuristic Stryker armored vehicles his unit trained with. And if he was afraid to go to war, he masked it well. Meanwhile, friends were amazed at his changed appearance. He looked much more fit, stood tall and filled into his broad shoulders.

In many ways, though, he was still the same Thomas, still a contradiction, so thoughtful and yet so endearingly absent-minded. While based at Fort Lewis in Washington state, he stayed in touch with Tobin. But he never could remember the time difference between the coasts, and his late-night phone calls often woke up his former teacher. One of the first letters he received in Iraq was from a collection agency, saying he owed for some overdue movie rentals.

Even as he prepared for combat, there were indications that Thomas was not a solider at heart. He told his family that if he died in war, he did not want to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery or in uniform. Eternity, he told his mother, belonged to him, not the Army.

After he was killed by small-arms fire in Mosul in November at age 20, he was buried in a suit that belonged to a friend. Thomas had outgrown his old clothes.

Tomorrow: An explosion in Iraq shakes a small Virginia town.

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