He covered his eyes with his hands so that no one would see him cry, his head pinned to his chest, flooded with a freight train of emotions which at that moment was embarrassment.
“Jokes on you, everything thinks you’re a big asshole who just dumped me,” he said has he wiped his eyes and lifted his head.
This was his attempt at making a joke like he always did to cover the dark and painful memories and the heartbreak that just hijacked his emotional off switch that he became accustomed to. It was a warm October afternoon 5 years ago and he didn’t like showing emotions, not to me, not to himself, and certainly not on the sidewalk of a crowded city café.
I didn’t know how insensitive I was being at the time, I couldn’t have imagined the type of loss and trauma that was hiding below his caviler attitude he generally put forward about his 25 years in the Army, 20 of those in Delta Force, and so I asked, “Can you tell me about Somalia?”.
“Yeah,” he answered, slightly looking away.
“I mean, is it ok for you to talk about it? I can’t imagine what that must have been like.” He sat for a minute, shifting in his chair, the space between us turned heavy. I immediately regretted asking him about that night on 3 October.
He cleared his throat, took a drink, and started talking about the mission that was supposed to last an hour that turned into 18, at the time it was the longest sustained firefight since Vietnam. He started to choke up as he talked about Earl, the man he called “brother” who had just taken enemy fire and was killed instantly.
“I thought we were invincible, and then I look over and they are dragging Earl into a house, he never moved again, he was gone and I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
As he continued to talk about the night, he dropped his head and started sobbing. I didn’t know what to do other than do what my instincts told me to do, keep asking him questions, keep him talking.
He eventually let go completely, shoulders soft and elbows on the table, holding up his head as he released the grief that he wouldn’t allow to surface for 20 years. For the next two hours it felt like we were the only two people in the world as I asked questions, comforted, and listened the best I could as he talked about the Battle of Mogadishu, which is commonly referred to as Black Hawk Down, on the sidewalk of the crowded city café.
Tom often refers to that exact moment as the moment he started to heal. Heal from the trauma. Heal from the grief. Heal from the anger. Heal from the guilt of surviving when so many of those he loved didn’t.
3 and 4 October are etched in his mind, his heart, and across his chest. Literally. He wears the names of his fallen brothers in a nest, protected by the wings of an eagle, tattooed to honor their lives as long as he lived.
It has been a long road to recovery, these past five years, more tears shed, more anger released, more trauma faced. It hasn’t always been easy, in fact, it’s been some of the toughest work he’s done to date. He is a different man than he was 5 years ago sitting at that cafe. He has learned to love and live again. He started serving again, this time to his brothers and sisters who are now where he was back then. He stands up and speaks out about the wear and tear decades of combat has done to his body, his mind, his soul and how to find your own way back to living yet again.
I admire his courage for speaking about the battle in Somalia, sometimes stopping to look down at the podium to collect himself before continuing, but just like everything he does, he shows us all that true bravery isn’t the absence of fear or emotion, but continuing on despite of it.
When I asked Tom what message he would like to share about the 25thAnniversary of Gothic Serpent, he said, “I want people to remember the good in life, not the bad or sad. Go through the grieving process but you have to move on. Moving on doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten, they are never forgotten.”
We honor the fallen. We honor their spouses, children, and their families who suffered a tremendous loss and who also paid the ultimate sacrifice, their loved ones.
This October 3rd and 4th, Tom shares a few memories of his brothers who gave all.
Heroes who will never age. Heroes who are never forgotten.
Earl Fillmore: He was a funny man, always playing jokes. He just had this great sense of humor about him. He always was cracking me up.
Tim “Griz” Martin: He had a kind-hearted nature that was lost on me then. He was always nice to everyone and genuine. He always had a smile on his face.
Dan Busch: He started to teach me how to trap. He loved the outdoors, he always talked about hunting and trapping. He was a devoted family man.
Randy Shughart: He was incredibly wise. He never quit at anything. He was a no shit, straight talking man. He loved his job. He loved this country. He loved his family.
Gary Gordon: He was a quiet man with a half-smile. He loved basketball. He was good at it too. He took his job seriously. He loved his wife as much as he loved his spandex shorts.
Matt Rierson: He was this loving husband and father. He actually was a father figure to me as well. He took me under his wing to teach me. He was selfless. He was a friend.