Why I Have a Buffalo Tattoo on My Chest
by Daniel Gaynor

This probably isn’t really a story about Tom. I’ve been thinking for months that I need to finally put my Tom stories down on paper and share them with people and I guess I have decided that I don’t really have Tom stories. I have stories about myself and how Tom affected me. The truth is, Tom and I weren’t really friends like most people would think. I’d say I was more of his older brother. Technically I was his boss. Therefore I really don’t have the kind of memories that most people probably have about Tom. I never heard the watermelon story until after he died and I don’t have any idea what Tom was like when he “let loose.” Apparently after Air Assault he partied with the Chilean Cadets in NYC. When I found out about this I wasn’t surprised… after my CFT (when I was Tom’s age) I took the Chilean Cadets to NYC as well. I like to think that had we been in the same class we would have been good buddies. We both like to have a good time, but we both have our priorities straight. Had we been in the same class I probably would have some pretty awesome Tom stories, that being said, I am glad I don’t because the view I had of Tom is a direct top down view of his service as a Soldier in the United States Army.

            Let’s get one thing straight: Tom was my soldier. In August of 2015 Tom was assigned to company B4. One of the first things Tom did as a Buffalo was try out for my Sandhurst Squad. I did not cut anyone from that tryout and it’s a good thing I didn’t because the resultant group is the most special group of people I’ve ever lead in my eight years of military school to include the USMA Black Sandhurst team (an all-star Sandhurst team comprised of cadets from throughout the corps). For months the B4 Sandhurst team suffered under my direct approach to leadership. I can’t say I am proud of my leadership that year, but I can say I learned a ton and for that I have my subordinates to thank. Every day at 1625 our team met and underwent pretty much whatever workout I decided we should do that day. Planning was not really something I felt was necessary at the time. Unfortunately for Tom I frequently felt like running. We ran a lot! Tom frequently expressed to me his desire to lift more, but he never once complained about running. Anyone who knew Tom can tell you that running was not a key factor in his athleticism. He had the highest 1RM in pretty much every lift on the team, but he was always the last or second to last runner on any run we did. I think it’s from this that I got to see so much of Tom’s character.

            We spent the fall training hard physically but frankly, I did not find it necessary to do a lot of skills. Instead, we played flag football… a lot. We actually spent more days playing football than we did practicing skills (Tom counted). Tom loved football days and we actually used his ball every time because no one else had one. I remember being quarter back and Tom coming up and whispering some football lingo in my ear that made no sense trying to get me to execute some play that was way beyond my comprehension. It took him a minute to realize that no one on our team had a lot of football experience but it was a ton of fun for everyone nonetheless. Our team grew very strong due to a balance of fun things like touch football and gruesome workouts where, frankly, we all suffered together.

            We had two competitions in the fall. The first one was just fourth regiment. We practiced all the skills quickly the two days before and somehow we won… I think common sense, excellent team work and my ability to argue well with the graders ruled the day. Tom did great that day but it wasn’t until the second competition that we get anything of real note. The second competition was the entire brigade (36 teams) competing in a much more complex competition. The day before we were packing our rucks and doing a layout for practice and just before 1625 rolled around Tom came up to me and said he was going to have some trouble doing events that required hand dexterity… then he showed me his hands… turns out he forgot to let go of the rope in mil-move and slid down, burning his hands and leaving literally some of the nastiest burn blisters I have ever seen. I had to “bench” him. He completely understood and was there to support his team 100%, but the pain in his eyes was evident to me. Tom loved to compete, and nothing pained him more than seeing his squad go out without him. It didn’t bother him because he wanted credit for the squad’s success; it bothered him because he couldn’t stand the fact that he couldn’t help.

His commitment to the team and who he was as a person was proved to me that day. B4 won that brigade competition, and Tom was there to be a part of that victory and support his team regardless of the pain I knew he felt that he couldn’t have helped us get there. After Tom passed I was working out in Arvin with the Black and Gold Sandhurst teams and one of our members approached our captain complaining of burnt hands and claiming that he couldn’t compete that weekend… I wish they had recorded me butting into that conversation. Some people don’t have intestinal fortitude… Tom had enough for multiple men. Nothing would stop him from helping his team and this incident was a precursor to that.

Tom kept working hard for the rest of the fall. He continued to suffer through workouts but he got faster. The whole team got faster too which still had him in the back. We got back from Winter break and he confessed to me that he ran twice and lifted eight times. I gave him a heck of an ear full for that. I still maintain that he should have lifted twice and run eight times. I think getting angry at him at this point fired him up to quit losing runs. I repeatedly told the team that I would take the nine fastest people (there were twelve of us on the team) in the competition with me and every day everyone gave their all to be in that top nine. Tom gave a little more than that though… he puked a lot… a lot. I have never seen someone go so hard on so many occasions and I loved it. He was a dream subordinate, whether you yelled at him or asked him nicely, he did everything he could to do what you said. One day we were doing “stair way to heavens” (running up and down a really long stair way in Arvin gym) two times for fifteen minutes. It was another day where we just did the hardest thing I could think of and this was especially heinous. Tom was dying walking up the stairs and I yelled “I didn’t say ‘walk’ I said ‘run’ for fifteen minutes” and you can bet he ran the rest of the way. That certainly wasn’t an okay thing to say as a leader, especially to a guy who worked as hard as him and was volunteering to be on my team. My voice saying that to him has stuck with me though and I don’t regret it. I knew it would fire him up. Anytime I am really sucking in a workout I tell myself that same thing and I kick it up a notch. Tom did that every day.

Our third competition of the year came around. This one was all the teams in third and fourth regiment. Tom was one of our nine but I don’t remember having to pick. I think we were missing some people that weekend and so everyone who was there got to compete. That being said, this is when Tom earned his spot on the team. We won that competition (if you’ve been counting, this was our third win). Orry and I talked a lot after specifically about the “cross fit event.” We assigned Tom to carry some heavy weights. He was the first to finish his carry. On top of that, we were doing these side to side jumps and only a certain amount of people could go at a time and Orry and I both swear that Tom was ALWAYS there to switch out with us when we got tired. Anytime we did an event where people rotated in and out, Tom was always there. Always. Passed that competition, Tom also finished his Army Physical Fitness Test two mile run in around 13:30. A perfect score in the Army is 13:00 and therefore this was a very impressive time. The improvements he made to achieve this time were remarkable, however, he was still the second slowest guy and not in the top 9.

Finally our final competition came around. The International Sandhurst Competition had 60 teams. 24 in addition to the 36 West Point teams. Before the competition I faced a very difficult decision. We had developed an amazing team. Words cannot really describe the mixture of touch football and grueling workouts that went into creating it, but we had a team cohesiveness that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to replicate with anyone else. Everyone was a part of the family and deciding which three wouldn’t compete was harrowing. I always said it would be the fastest nine and it was very obvious who they were. That all changed though. To make the decision I pulled in both team leaders, Jeff and Orry, and my assistant squad leader, Carolyn. The first thing I brought up was that Tom should compete. Unanimous agreement. There was no doubt in any of our minds that we would go with Tom. That was the easiest decision of the night. We ended up “benching” one other plebe who was somewhat injured, our other female besides Carolyn, and a yearling, in excellent shape, who had a year of Sandhurst experience under his belt. To his credit, that yearling took the decision very well which was a testament to the cohesiveness of our group.

Before this conversation happened, Tom came to me and mentioned that his parents wanted to come to Sandhurst, but he knew he wasn’t fast enough to compete. I told him to stand by for a decision. When I went to his room after the decision was made, I looked him in the eye and told him I wasn’t going to do it without him and that I relied on him to be our mule. He looked right back and told me something along the lines of that he wouldn’t let me down. The mule is a big guy on a sandhurst team who carries weight. Tom could carry a lot of weight even though he was slow. I knew he’d put his head down and give me everything he had. I knew he wouldn’t quit. Tom was my Soldier. We’d go to hell and back with each other if we had to. It is impossible to explain this bond here and I can understand that it may seem melodramatic to say this over a Sandhurst competition. Our bond was more than just Sandhurst.

So it was we stepped off on Sandhurst 2016. We did well and we learned a lot. Most of all we suffered. Tom struggled. 40 miles was more than I think he ever thought he would have to walk with 50 pounds of stuff to carry but he did it. At one point in the competition we had to traverse long pond mountain without using any roads or trails. Basically we had to walk along the edge of this rocky mountain for many miles with all of our gear. This was the second day and we had already covered 25-30 miles. We were struggling pretty badly and Tom was hurting very badly and we all knew it. I grabbed him and told him to smile. I knew if he smiled, everyone else would know that things were okay and we could finish strong. So he did and we did. Tom crossed the finish line in good shape and he surely motivated the team. He was in fact the slowest guy on paper, but he was not the most broken at the end and certainly not the slowest in the competition. Every time he puked and suffered in practice prepared him for the competition. He had the grit and determination to get through that thing with a smile on his face. Those characteristics he had are irreplaceable with the fitness that comes with years of training like we did which many of the faster guys had. Tom was strong physically, which we needed. But what our team needed more was his grit.

Tom was a hero to our team every day. Whether he was puking in a trash can after giving every single ounce of energy he had to cross the finish line 5 seconds faster than he had the last time, or ignoring the pain in his legs to make sure he was there when we needed him to switch in a cross-fit type workout. I am sure no one worked as hard as he did and no one had a grin on their face as much as he did either. He did everything with a positive attitude. His ability to suffer through a workout and stay positive is what built the cohesion in our group and looking back I think we all know it.

I was sitting in an airport waiting for a flight from New York to Seattle this summer scrolling through Facebook. I saw a strange post on Tom’s wall. Something about someone wishing something wasn’t true and hoping he was okay. I had no idea that after reading that my life would never be the same. I sent Tom a text just to check in. I hadn’t talked to him since I left West Point for my own summer training. I sent him the following exactly: Hey tom you good man? Saw a weird post on FB. Hopefully your fine, kick a** at Buckner tomorrow and good job at air assault. Looking forward to seeing you in August.” My flight landed in Seattle and I turned on my phone to a whirlwind of news that Tom was in the hospital. I called my mom and asked to get on another flight back to New York. She wanted me to get home, eat something, get some better situational awareness and then make a decision (shout out to my Mom for being rational). At this point I called Tom’s dad. I had no idea what to say and I honestly don’t remember that conversation except for that he told me what Tom had done. I was not surprised. Our Sandhurst team had been talking this whole time through text and I reported to them what Mr. Surdyke said to me: that Tom had risked his life to save someone else. None of us were surprised. Tom was a hero and we knew that already. This time I sent a much different text to him: “hey man I heard what happened. I know you’re not gonna get this but I promise all your brothers and sisters are her for you praying. I love you buddy. I’ll see you very soon.” Tom never got to read that text.

If you’re reading this then you already know what happens next. I did see Tom again. On July 4th in a casket at West Point. The whole team made it except for one on another continent and one that we made stay at Airborne to complete his training. Tom would have been livid had we let someone not earn their wings. We all broke it down together over Tom’s casket before it was lowered into the earth. “Buffs on three. One, two, three: BUFFS.”

But the story is not over. It never will be. Everyone who knew Tom will carry him forward. He is not someone who can be forgotten. Some people pass, and we find ourselves only remembering the good things about them and embellishing over the bad things. That’s not the case here. There is nothing to hide about Tom as we remember him. He was not perfect, but his example is. Tom gave his life for another. He made that choice freely and I am confident that he knew the risk to himself. The truth though is that Tom probably didn’t even think when he saved that person. Tom made the choice to put everyone else before himself long before that day. I do not know exactly when, but I can say for sure that it was before I met him. I will spend the rest of my life trying to be like Tom. I will never forget and neither will many others. My kids and my grandkids will know who he is. You can bet on that.

So the tattoo… before the Sandhurst competition I told the team that if we did better than B4 did the year before I would get a Buffalo tattoo. Well… we did. In 2015 we got 17th place. In 2016, we got 16th. Tom did not let me forget my promise even in death. He literally bugged me about it every chance he got between the competition and the end of that school year. As we sat in Tom’s funeral service, someone on the team, I don’t remember who, leaned in and said “You have to get that tattoo now.” Three days later there was a giant buffalo head on my right pectoral muscle. So what? I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what that tattoo meant to me after I got it. At first I just told everyone the truth. I pretty much lost a bet. Overtime though I realized it was something much different. Tom is alive in everyone he touched and for me he will forever be a steely eyed buffalo charging forward. That is exactly who he was in life. Every time I look in the mirror and see the eyes on the Buffalo, I see Tom looking back at me the night we made the decision to put him on the squad for the competition. That look told me he’d never quit. Neither will I. Thank you brother. I love you.

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