While Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas "T.J." Dudley was serving overseas, he and his wife, Mary, would email back-and-forth about his quest to legally adopt her 13-year-old daughter, Taylor.
"T.J. never called Taylor his stepdaughter," Mary Dudley said. "He's loved her since she was born, and their connection to one another was instant.
"He took on the role of being her dad, and she accepted it and embraced it."
The Fort Mill couple went through years of paperwork, home interviews and inspections, and just when they thought they were close to completing the process, adoption documents -- complete with T.J.'s signature -- were lost in the mail.
Mary Dudley, 27, was frustrated, but her husband kept her calm.
"He had kept his calmness and just said, 'We will finish it when I get home,' " she said.
On July 7, as Mary Dudley was gathering the paperwork to file again, Marines knocked on her door to report that her husband had been killed in action in Afghanistan, where he was serving as crew chief with the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264 -- The Black Knights.It was Dudley's sixth deployment. He was killed two weeks before he was set to return home to Mary, Taylor, 5-year-old Thomas Carter and 2-year-old Jenna Robyn in Jacksonville, N.C., where he was stationed at Camp Lejeune.
Now, Mary, along with her family and friends, are trying to push forward with the adoption process so T.J. can have his final wish.
Her lawyer has said it is probably impossible.
Adoption law requires his signature, which he can no longer give. They have begun an online petition addressed to North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue and Rep. Jimmy Dixon -- who represents Onslow County, where Camp Lejeune is located, in the General Assembly -- asking that the adoption go through.
So far the petition has garnered more than 6,000 signatures.
"It would mean so much to me to know that the unfinished business that T.J. left behind would be granted," Dudley said. "He gave everything he had to me, to his children, to his country, to his community.
"The very least we can do is allow him to legally be a father to a child he has loved for 13 years."
The couple embarked on the adoption process about five years ago, but not much could be done until Taylor's biological father gave up his parental rights in May 2010.
The next month, the Dudleys completed the documents and filed them at the Onslow County Courthouse in Jacksonville.
Several home inspections and interviews and interviews followed. They saved money, went through two interviews and inspections and sent in more paperwork -- including their marriage license, background checks, birth certificates and Social Security numbers.
Somehow, that paperwork was lost, and Dudley had been deployed to Afghanistan.
Efforts to reach state adoption officials in North Carolina were unsuccessful last week.
Dudley said her husband and her daughter were a lot alike. T.J. took Taylor fishing and kayaking. He cheered her on at her sporting events. He helped her learn to write and clean up the kitchen after dinner.
Most of all, he encouraged her to do her best. "His love for her was not bound by blood," Mary said. "He chose to love her, and she chose to love him. They were nearly inseparable at times."
Taylor's last name will be Dudley by Christmas, but that's not enough for the heartbroken family.
"She deserves to grieve for a man that the world considers her father," Mary said. "He provided for her where it mattered, even in his death. The Marine Corps considers her his child, Social Security considers her his child.
"Just the state of North Carolina doesn't."
Mary Dudley has promised she will do "everything in her power" to make it happen, especially because her husband was so excited about it.
But even if that paperwork never comes through, Taylor will be OK, she added, because she knows he loved her.
"She said he is her dad, and she never needed a piece of paper to prove that," Mary said. "She says he is the best daddy she could ever have and knows that he just wants her to be happy and respectful."