Master Sergeant Thomas Saunders has been dead four years. He died as a member of a Marine Special Operations Team, training for war only months after returning from one. An internet search of his name yields images depicting him with a beard, wearing expensive equipment, or in a uniform adorned with shiny badges that suggest a warrior flush with tales of daring and danger in places far off the beaten path.
However, I knew him as a Sergeant of Marine Infantry: the anonymous, spirited, and hard-nosed ground pounder that has lived in the mud and kept the wolf from our doors since 1783. The distinctions are fine, but they exist and they are where I find the truth of who Tom Saunders was as a leader of men. In an infantry line company there is nowhere for a troublemaker or slow learner to hide. One cannot be kicked out because there is nowhere to be kicked to. Additionally, that Marine’s absence on the line will never be filled because there are too many other lines that need to be addressed. Therefore, that eighteen-year-old who now regrets the decision to join must be energized. That belligerent twenty-four-year-old PFC must be shown the value of teamwork. All the characteristics that made Tom a successful MARSOC Operator needed to be set to eleven in the infantry. He became a Raider because he was more than someone that an officer charged with carrying out the plan of the day. He was the plan of the day.
He was a scholar that taught the clueless.
He was a big brother that encouraged the wayward.
He inspired the unimaginative.
At any moment he was a teacher, jail warden, babysitter, and coach.
Before he learned to jump from an aircraft with one-hundred pounds of gear strapped to his body or tow that same load while diving fifty feet below the surface of the ocean, he embodied the credo “if I cannot find a way, I shall make one.” Sometimes that meant rucking back to the barracks when the scheduled transportation failed us. Other times that meant achieving an unplanned personal record deadlift because one of his Marines was working with more weight. He may not have been athletic enough to carry the ball into the end zone (he was born to play catcher in slow-pitch softball), but he had enough grit to lead, inspire, and if required, drag a rifle company to the limit of advance. As I increase in rank and experience, my commensurate awe for Tom grows as I wonder what it would be like to have three Toms when I was a Platoon Commander. The idea of having nine Toms as a Company Commander makes me appreciate that maybe Alexander of Macedon wasn’t blinded by his own ambition, that maybe world domination was indeed possible.
But there can only ever be one Tom, so world domination will have to wait.
Fourteen years ago, we were deployed to the edge of the empire, which is what we called Spain. Meanwhile the rest of the Marine Corps was doing what we joined to do: fighting. While most of us raged against those who would send us to Spain when we yearned to prove ourselves in Iraq, at the wise old age of 24 Tom had already “seen the elephant.” His thoughts were therefore less abstract, centered as they were on his own experiences in Iraq and the Marines he left behind when he took us under his wing. Those Marines were in Fallujah, where things were heavy and would soon get heavier. Fueled by the ignorance and bravado that makes 18 to 22 year olds fearsome on the battlefield, we drank to ignore the guilt driven by our insecurities. Our platoon of Marines in Spain drank enough for a company of Marines in Iraq because, if we weren’t afforded the privilege of being a part of our Corps’ fighting legacy, we could at least add to the less admirable, but no less enthusiastic aspects of our Corps’ heritage.
That’s what we told ourselves anyway.
Tom knew how we felt. Nonetheless, he did not let our disappointment, or our incipient alcoholism, detract from our mental or physical readiness. He trained us as if we were the vanguard of an imminent invasion. Tom was a master at raising the phoenix of esprit de corps from the ashes of disappointment Marines so often experience after a year or two in the Corps.
We spent one particular evening as we had many others: capitalizing on Tom’s command of the local language. Tom became fluent in Spanish during a youth partly spent in South America but we only discovered his fluency watching him haggle with cab drivers. Revelations about Tom stopped surprising us months earlier. Now they simply garnered another “of course,” before we moved on with our evening. The finer details of the specific evening are long since lost to time and the effects of Crippler, an elixir of Tom’s creation. Crippler was a sophisticated balance of Jägermeister (for color), No Fear energy drink (for courage), Jack Daniels (for strength), gin (for flavor), and sangria purchased by the gallon (for a touch of class). We generally consumed Crippler from a large, unwashed Tupperware container. However, on special occasions such as the Marine Corps’ birthday, promotions, demotions, and on occasions when Tom recognized we needed a morale boost, we drank Crippler from a lacquered bull horn acquired on a training exercise a few months earlier and adorned with .50 caliber casings to increase the collective martial self-image masking our inexperience.
As the evening wound to a close and we all struggled to maintain consciousness long enough to reach our respective beds, Tom thumbed through some books on my shelf. Through half-opened eyes he smiled at me, which meant he was either going to punch me or compromise his rough façade and offer a glimpse of his intellect. Thankfully, it was the latter. Tom grabbed Hill 488, a book that tells the tale of Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sergeant Jimmie Howard and his platoon from 1st Reconnaissance Battalion.
“You have good books; I’m borrowing this,” he barked. Thankfully, he did not recall that it was his book in the first place and that he told me to read it while I stood barracks duty with him seven months earlier. “It’s important for boots to know about those who came before them,” he said, “and it’s impossible to bitch about morning PT because you’re sleepy from duty when you just read a book about a battle that earned a single platoon thirteen Silver Stars, four Navy Crosses, and a Medal of Honor.”
Six hours later, I awoke to my door slamming open and the sight of Tom shouldering his ruck while returning the book to my shelf. “Ruck up, mother fucker,” he said through a grin reserved for particularly painful evolutions or wild evenings.
“Did you just read that entire book and decide it’s a good idea to go for a hike?”
“No, I also got breakfast,” he replied as he tossed me a stale bagel and a packet of peanut butter. “And we aren’t dating, so we aren’t walking either. Forty-five pounds, dry. See you in twenty minutes. Don’t be late; don’t be light.”
And off I went, because you did not say “no” to Tom. No one could.
Tom was not simply inspired to better himself and those around him because he found motivation from the exploits of Marines four decades earlier. If motivation is defined as the general desire or willingness of someone to do something, then motivation is fleeting. Instead, Tom was the embodiment of discipline because he knew that laurels were not to be rested upon and he had a corresponding obligation to not only make himself better, but also improve those around him.
Tom was a leader of men, a professional Marine, a mentor, a musician, a closeted scholar, and a man who could quote the drill manual out of spite to show the most belt-fed First Sergeant that he was better than him at things Tom cared little about. He was a legend to anyone who spent a moment with him, fueled by Copenhagen and supercharged by alcohol. Tom was the defender of the meek, he strengthened the weak, and was the sworn enemy of incompetence.
Above all else, Tom was a loyal friend, unashamed to say “I love you” after punching you in the face too hard for pointing to his father’s oil painting of Stonewall Jackson and noting that Jackson should have been wearing a reflective belt.
Although he is no longer with us, his spirit remains in the hills of Camp Horno, the swamps of North Carolina, and in the industrious Lance Corporals that seize the opportunity to harden their bodies and their livers at 0230 when the Officer of the Day neglects his responsibilities in order to steal a couple hours of forbidden sleep.
Semper Fidelis, Tom. Your legacy will far outlive our service.
Ron Lienhardt has since been shot at and has realized that Spain wasn’t so bad. He is a Marine Corps infantry officer and a fan of the New York Mets, both of which demonstrate a level of loyalty and masochism that far surpasses any good sense. He is currently pretending to be an academic at the Naval Postgraduate School for follow-on service as a Southeast Asia Foreign Area Officer. He earned his commission through the University of Colorado at Boulder where he regularly got passed by hipsters on fixies and vegans in the mountains. He learned a lot from both. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.