When one U.S. soldier died in action in Afghanistan in 2012, his family and friends were devastated. But then a strange boy started appearing at his graveside, and when the veteran’s mother found out why he was visiting, it warmed her heart.
Thomas Jefferson Butler IV – fondly known informally as T.J. to friends and family – lived in Leland, NC, with his wife, Holly, and their son, Thomas Jefferson Butler V, who was born in 2012. Due to the nature of his duties, however, T.J. spent a lot of time away from home.
Growing up in Hampstead, NC, T.J. graduated from the town’s Topsail High School in 2006, before enlisting with the North Carolina National Guard in 2007. And in August 2012 – just five months after his son was born – he was sent on his first combat deployment to serve as a military policeman in the Operation Enduring Freedom campaign in Afghanistan. However, when he left, little did T.J. know that he would never see his son and beloved wife again.
Naturally, the devastating news soon reached his family back in the states. Four days later, in a public statement, Holly Butler said T.J. was, “the most proud and devoted husband and father, and a loving brother and son. He was the truest friend and would do anything he could for anyone.” She added, “He is not only our hero, but a hero for this country he so bravely and proudly served.”
It was fitting, then, that T.J. was given a true hero’s send off with a full military funeral on October 12. On the day of T.J.’s internment, hundreds of flag-waving mourners wearing red, white and blue lined the streets of Wilmington, North Carolina.
During the procession, T.J.’s casket was carried by a horse-drawn carriage. It would make its way along the streets to Wilmington National Cemetery, where T.J. would be laid to rest.
There T.J. would lay alongside the thousands of fellow war veterans to have fallen since the cemetery opened in 1867. The following Memorial Day, on May 27, 2013, T.J.’s name was among the proud roll call to be read out in memory of those who had gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country in the past year.
Then, at one such Memorial Day ceremony in 2016, a young boy visited the cemetery with his family to pay their respects. Mason Lee and his mom, Sarah, had been laying flags on soldier’s graves, but one particular headstone stopped the six-year-old in his tracks.
Mason became so distracted by the grave, that he wandered off from his family. “He kind of disappeared on me and I was panicked,” Sarah Lee revealed to the cameras of NBC affiliate WECT6 in July 2017. “I didn’t know where to find him, and he was sitting next to a headstone.”
That grave was the final resting place of Sergeant Thomas Jefferson Butler IV. And there was something about the headstone that stood out for little Mason. As a result, the youngster began to quiz his mom all about T.J. – he wanted to know about the life that the fallen solider might have lived before his untimely death.
“Mason had a lot of questions. He wanted to know if [T.J.] had a son and a family, and wanted to know more about him,” Sarah explained to WECT6. “It was really touching because you could tell he was really soaking it all in. That this was somebody’s son, somebody’s daddy.”
It was a significant moment in his young life that struck Mason profoundly, and it stuck with him, too. So, 12 months later, Mason returned to T.J.’s graveside for the second Memorial Day running. And this time he had planned to do something special for the fallen soldier.
As the rest of the family laid out their customary flags in salute, Mason – then aged seven – sat down by T.J.’s headstone and drew the sergeant a very special picture in tribute. Taking inspiration from the Marvel Comics character Captain America, the youngster drew a shield like the one the superhero uses alongside a rendering of the Stars and Stripes flag.
When asked why he had decided to depict Captain America’s trademark shield design on his drawing for Sergeant Butler, Mason’s answer to WECT6 was simple and direct. “Because he was a hero,” he said. And many people would have agreed with the youngster on that point.
When the young boy was done with his tribute picture, Mason left it at T.J.’s graveside. “[He] put it in a little zip-lock bag to make sure the rain didn’t mess it up,” Sarah revealed. “He put his name on there and left it for Sergeant Butler.”
T.J.’s grieving mother, Leslie, was later deeply moved when she discovered the picture. The bereaved parent had gone to spend some quiet time with her son, and Mason’s small, thoughtful gesture meant a lot to her and the rest of the Butler family. “For Mason’s age, I thought it was very special that he came down to visit T.J.,” she told WECT6.
She also said that she wasn’t too surprised that her son was still making new friends, even after his passing. “T.J.’s teachers all his life called him a social butterfly. So I’m thinking he still is a social butterfly,” Leslie told the film crew.
To repay Mason for his kind actions, Leslie wanted to meet the little boy and give him a special present of his own. So she arranged to meet him at Wilmington National Cemetery one day in July 2017. And she brought along a Captain America doll to give to Mason, so he could use it to remember T.J.
The pair were also filmed visiting T.J.’s grave together and symbolically laying pennies on his headstone. It was a very special moment for Leslie. Yes, now she was sure that, as long as Mason was around, there would be someone to remember her son.
And the little boy has promised T.J.’s mom that he’ll be back at the cemetery next year to pay his tributes. “He’ll place his flag here every year,” Leslie told WECT6. “I can be happy that I know Mason’s going to give T.J. his flag.”