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Family and friends in Stow and elsewhere mark a decade without Cpl. Joseph Tomci

by Jeff Saunders | reporter Published: August 7, 2016 12:00 AM
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Stow -- The word "Extreme" on the sleeve of Gordon Sprague's green T-shirt was a tribute to the competitive nature of his friend and fellow Marine Joseph Tomci.

"The first time I saw him was in Haiti [in 2004] in the gym," said Sprague, a North Carolina resident who is no longer in the Marines.

He said Cpl. Tomci's muscular build initially gave him the wrong impression of him.

"I figured he had already been in for years and he got there two weeks before I did," said Sprague.

Aug. 2 marked the 10th anniversary of the day Cpl. Tomci was killed during his second tour of duty in Iraq. He joined the Marines soon after graduating from Stow-Munroe Falls High School in 2003. The post office in Stow is named in his honor.

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Sprague was one of seven Marines who knew Cpl. Tomci and attended the seventh annual Joseph A. Tomci Memorial Golf Outing at Roses Run Country Club July 30. The event is sponsored by the Cpl. Joseph A. Tomci Memorial Foundation, started by Tomci's family and friends in his honor to raise money to help veterans in a variety of ways.

Gayle Okonek, Cpl. Tomci's mother, said that typically, well over 100 golfers take part in the event, with more than 175 people, including non-golfers, attending a dinner in the evening.

"Almost every year we're sold out," she said. "I think this year it went very well. We've received numerous comments on what a good event it is so we're pleased at how well it went."

Okonek did not golf, so she spent the outing with several family members "posted" by one of the holes.

"It gave me an opportunity to meet just about everybody who was playing," she said. "It was really kind of sweet because it was like everybody was giving me hugs and they started sharing stories about Joseph and that whole aspect of it was really very overwhelming for me."

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Competitive and caring

Sprague said he went through specialized reconnaissance training with Cpl. Tomci before they went to Iraq and experienced firsthand his knack for motivating himself and others.

"Going in [to the Marines] at 25, I was an old man," said Sprague. "His being 18, 19, I still looked up to him. He was like a big brother."

Marine Staff Sgt. Daniel Tarantino, who is currently stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, said he met Cpl. Tomci on the same deployment to Haiti that Sprague did and found him to be "extremely competitive."

"It was his point to fight with as many different weapons as he could," said Tarantino. "He made everything a competition. He pushed everyone to be the best person they could be. To be with Joe was a competition. But in a good way."

Nick Kobus, who is also stationed at Camp Lejeune, was Cpl. Tomci's roommate before they were deployed to Haiti.

"I knew him from 2003 until he passed," said Kobus. "He challenged you as a person all the time. He made you better. You wanted to be like him."

Okonek said her son was a goal setter.

"He always had something to do," she said, "and he had a bigger social calendar than I had. I had to work around him sometimes, when [he would say], 'don't forget we have this picnic.' He was just one of those people who was drawn to other people."

Tarantino and Kobus said they saw this side of Cpl. Tomci as well.

"I think the thing that stood out about Joe the most is how much he cared about his friends," said Tarantino. "He had the biggest heart."

Kobus said, "He would do anything for you. It could be something as simple as moving your gear. He'd be there for you. All you had to do was ask. They say the best guys get taken from you too early. He definitely was proof of that."

Okonek said "Joseph was such a very caring person from a very young age"

"He made a connection with people and he put other people first," she said. "He was always a real people person and he was very very accepting of all his friends and I'll tell you, when you get to know them, each one is just totally different and there are so many of them and I've not known many people with as many friends as Joseph."

She said that some of the stories she heard on the golf course involved "partying," trips taken, "just hanging out with him" and being entertained by his "knack for impersonating other people's mannerisms and that, so he was always a lot of fun."

"Some of these stories I never heard before so I'm still learning about my son," she said.

Okonek said that taking part in the foundation gives her an opportunity to spend time with her son's friends.

"In some ways, sometimes I see Joseph in them," she said. "It brings tears to my eyes, but it's a good thing and I love to be around them. It's like we all have that connection with him."

The Cpl. Joseph A. Tomci Memorial Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization. Go to www.tomcifoundation.org for more information.

Email: jsaunders@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9431

Facebook: Jeff Saunders Record

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