Memorial Service Address
by Tim Surdyke

This is the text of my address at Tom's memorial service in our home town of Festus Missouri on July 22, 2016. 

There is no way I am going to get through this without falling apart, so you all are just going to have to put up with me.  So I'm going to give you all a job...When you see me losing it, yell GO ARMY, BEAT NAVY!  Especially you Eric, and all you other Navy folks out there.   

You all have heard Tom's heroic story.  He truly is a hero, but not just for saving that young man at the beach.  Tom is a hero because of the example he set by the effort he put forth to be the best cadet he could be.  I am going to tell you some stories about Tom's time at West Point, and read from notes we have received from his cadet friends.  I call them the Sandhurst Letters.  

The most failed course at West Point is called Military Movement.  It is basically a combination of gymnastics and strength training.  All first year cadets must take it.  Tom took it last fall, his first semester. 

So some time in the middle of the semester, on his weekly required by mom Sunday night phone call, Tom quietly informed us that he had hurt his hands.  He downplayed everything, taking all of the drama out of it.   

One of the tasks in Mil-Move, as it is called, is to climb a 30ft high rope, go back down, then climb it again with a different technique, then descend again.  Tom was just tapping the flag at the top of his second ascent, when he lost his grip.  He came falling to the ground, only slowing himself by his grip on the rope.  He broke his fall enough to avoid any broken bones, but he basically burned all of the skin off of his palms.

 This injury would have forced most cadets to drop the class and retake it the next semester.  Most of his friends actually told him that was what he should do.  But not Tom.  He was bound and determined to pass that class.  And he did.  Bandaged up for almost a month, he still was able do complete the Indoor Obstacle Course, which includes a monkey bar section, pulling one's self up onto a 8 ft high platform, rings, and many other obstacles that require using your hands.  He gritted it out through the pain and passed.  With a D, but he passed.  It was his first D, and he was glad about getting it.

When a group of cadets came and visited Tom at the hospital before he passed, he told me he was in Mil-Move with Tom, and he was awed and inspired by Tom's sheer determination to complete a task.  To quote, he said Tom basically passed Mil-Move with two less hands than everyone else in the class. 

Every cadet at West Point must compete in some sort of athletics.  Tom chose a military skills competition called Sandhurst.  Sandhurst is an annual competition between military academies and ROTC units from all over the world.  It happens at West Point every spring for over 50 years, and is named for Sandhurst Military Academy in Great Britain.  In this competition, squads of 9 cadets perform a multitude of military tasks for score, all while navigating a 35 mile course with a 60lb. pack.   

Through the academic year, each company at West Point (there are 36) train and compete in Regimental and Brigade level competitions to prepare for the big international meet.  Tom's team had won every event it competed in up to that point.  Tom did miss one late the first semester because of his burned up hands. 

OK, let me tell this to you straight:  Tom is not fast.  He has never been a runner.  He is thick and bulky, not lean by any stretch, but he could be mean when called for.   

Anyway, Tom's squad leader Dan told the team 2 months before the final event, We are taking the 9 fastest team members, period.   

That squad leader told me later, Tom proceeded to work his butt off, and after every training run, he was puking his guts up from the effort.  The squad leadership met a few days before the competition and to pick the final team.  There were 3 cadets vying for the final 2 slots.   The first thing Dan said when they got together was I'm not going without Surdyke.  During the brief discussion, the question Who do you want with us at mile 35, still smiling, and not quitting?  Tom was in.   

Another aspect of these training runs was that Tom always wanted to play football, so he was told, Ok, you bring the football, and after the run, we'll play.  So off Tom went enthusiastically with the football, his rucksack, and his rifle.  The combination of his cheerfulness and hard work were an inspiration to the team.  And the whole team is competing again this year in Tom's honor. 

Here is one of the Sandhurst Letters, written while Tom was battling for his life: 

Tom Surdyke, one dark day on Long Pond Mountain, in the midst of the Sandhurst competition, I grabbed you and told you to smile, because your smile would inspire our team and pull us through. You are a hero Tom, and you have inspired me since the day we began our Sandhurst journey together last fall. No matter what happens in our newest battle, I know... I have always known, that you will never give up and that you will inspire everyone around you. Right now you are inspiring your family, all of your classmates at Camp Buckner and members of the Long Grey Line training and fighting around the world. I will never be more proud to have lead someone as I am to have been your Squad Leader. You have taught me so much. I love you, Tom. Go Buffs, little bro. We'll all break it down on you someday very soon.  

One of Tom's good friends and teammates recalled a recent incident.  The whole Corps was on the parade field for graduation practice.  I was standing right next to Tom and he must've had food poisoning, because 10 minutes in he asked the platoon sergeant to fall out.  Right after he left, he puked up that day's lunch took and immediately walked away like a champ.  I can imagine him walking away with his fist in the air, and honestly that's how I imagine him; as an angel walking away from this world as a champ toward's God's Heavenly gates.  Tom. Was. A. Hero.  And will forever be remembered as one. 

Tom's life is meant to shine a light on how we all should live.  Always give 100% effort to anything worth doing.  Cheerfully accept the challenges put in front of you.  Make the hard, right, choices.  


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