Honoring Dad, a fallen hero, on Memorial Day

May 24 2024 • By Roger Mooney

Air Force Col. Thomas Falzarano was a family man, the type of dad who came home from work and raced his young sons to the backyard trampoline, bouncing around on the mat while Michael and Thomas jumped up and down for all they were worth.

Laughter filled the neighboring yards.

Col. Thomas Falzarano's children at Arlington National Cemetery during Memorial Day Weekend in 2023.

“We all loved it,” said his widow, Stacey. “It’s a good memory for all of us.”

It’s memories like that and ones created during a thousand other moments, big or little, that Stacey and her children will share with families of other fallen military members on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Families mingle among the marble headstones.

Tell me about your husband.

Tell me about your son.

Your daughter.

Your mom.

Here's what Stacey tells them: “He was something else."

Thomas died suddenly of a heart attack on May 12, 2020.

At the time, he was the commander of the Air Force’s 21st Space Wing and stationed at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he was also the senior commander.

It was a Tuesday. He had come home for lunch and moments later, collapsed. He was 47.

“He was a natural born leader, always calm,” Stacey said. “People really enjoyed being around him and listening to what he had to say.”

Five months after Thomas died, Stacey, a Miami native, moved her traumatized family to Florida and settled in Brevard County.

“We needed a place to land,” she said.

Michael and Thomas have attended a Catholic school for three years on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students. They will be fourth-graders in 2024-25, while Valentine, the youngest, starts kindergarten.

Stacey wanted her children to attend Catholic school.

“That was a priority of mine,” she said. “I wanted a safe and nurturing school that gave them a solid faith foundation, and it has delivered.

“They absolutely love it. They love all the sports the school has to offer. They love all their friends. We’re a part of (the school’s) community.”

Air Force Col. Thomas Falzarano loved to play with his children or just watch his children play.

Having the FTC scholarship has helped ease some of the turbulence in their lives since Thomas’s passing.

“I really feel like Florida and military go hand-in-hand, like Florida really respects our military background,” Stacey said. “This scholarship is very military-friendly. So, I really appreciate that. It was an easy fit for us. It made sense.”

Dependent children of active-duty members of the armed services who currently live out of state, but have been assigned to a base in Florida and plan to move soon, are eligible for the scholarships. In addition, students from active-duty military families are exempt from the annual enrollment cap for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA).

During the 2023-24 school year, a total of 5,905 students from active-duty military families received one of the scholarships managed by Step Up.

Stacey and Thomas met at an Air Force base in California, where she worked as a civilian military intelligence analyst. They moved together from base to base during their 10-year marriage.

Thomas had been appointed to lead the Space Wing in December 2019. Space Force Gen. Jay Raymond, the Chief of Space Operations, called his death “tragic” for Space Force and the Air Force.

“Tom was an incredible leader, mentor, and friend who will be remembered for his warm personality and dedicated service to our nation,” Gen. Raymond said in a release at the time.

At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Thomas was a mountain of a man.

“All muscle,” Stacey said.

He liked to play golf and took the family on hikes and picnics.

“He loved playing with the kids in the backyard or just watching them play,” Stacey said.

Stacey has become an advocate for the families of fallen heroes. She wrote “Honoring Our Own: 101 Ways to Support Fallen Hero Families” and has finished a draft of her book, “Military Widows Workbook.”

“I'm always advocating for military widows,” she said.

And part of that advocacy is spreading the word about the Step Up scholarships. “I’m happy with the scholarships,” she said.

Air Force Col. Thomas Falzarano was the commander of the Air Force’s 21st Space Wing.

On Wednesday, May 22, Stacey and the kids drove to Washington, D.C. Leaving at 3 a.m., they made the 14-hour drive without stopping. It was a trip they have made every Memorial Day Weekend since they moved to Florida.

The days are spent remembering and honoring the fallen heroes.

The kids attended the Good Grief Camp hosted by TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), where they spent time with the children of other fallen heroes.

Stacey and the kids always visit Arlington National Cemetery twice. The first was on Thursday, and it was more of a solemn occasion. The second visit is on Memorial Day and it’s a celebration of life. That’s when the families share the memories of their loved ones.

“It’s not hard to do because it’s important to us,” Stacey said. “It’s a time for the kids to reflect and talk about their daddy. We tell him how much we miss him. You meet other people like us, which is nice for the weekend. It's healing. And it's healing for the children, too.

“These military kids are special. You know about military brats, but the children of fallen heroes are really special kids. They're really the ones who have made the sacrifice.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].

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Roger Mooney