Marine Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders died March 10, 2015, when his helicopter crashed during a training exercise off the fog-bound coast of Florida near Eglin Air Force Base. Six Marines and a Louisiana Guardsman died with him.
Kat Croft, who had known Saunders since childhood, attended the funeral at a historic church in Williamsburg, where Saunders grew up. Later at the parish hall, she expected to find tears and sadness. Instead, she opened the door and heard the heavy metal blasts of Metallica.
“It felt like this incredible reunion,” she said.
Croft is a former newspaper photographer turned filmmaker, and the next week she went home and “wrote the fastest script I’ve ever written.” That script has become the basis for “The Detail,” a short film that premiers Nov. 12 at the Cucalorus Festival in Wilmington, N.C.
It centers on a team of special operations Marines who have gathered to honor a fallen comrade. They’re holding a party because, well, they have their orders. Their fallen brother in arms had left behind a series of instructions should he die or be killed. Here’s the list:
Call the lads. I want everyone there.
Fireball XXX salsa
Stuntman shots. (Everyone)
The best scotch
Beer. Lots of beer
Enjoy the view
One last party
Master Sgt. Ian Teague, played by actor Roger Wayne, is tasked with pulling off the farewell party at the last minute. Armed with the list, he buys booze and arrives as a house in the rolling countryside where preparations are underway. Sort of. His fellow Marines have fallen a bit behind, thanks in part to getting a head start on stuntman shots, which consist of three basic maneuvers: snorting salt off the countertop, downing a shot of tequila and squirting a slice of lime in your eye. (Another version of this drink involves sticking a toothpick in your head. More on that later.)
Later, it is time to share stories about their fallen comrade, at first known only as Sean. But when a car pulls up to the house and the team goes out to meet it, a Marine in full dress uniform ceremoniously hands over a small urn with human ashes. The engraved name on the plate identifies their friend as Staff Sgt. Sean Thomas 1988-2016.
As the end music swells, a single item on the list remains.
One last party.
The film runs 13½ minutes, including credits. It is dedicated to Saunders, but he is not represented by any single character, according to Croft. Rather, His essence is spread through the various characters.
“He was kind, caring, tough, smart, a joker, intense, all in one,” she said.
Croft and Saunders grew up together because their respective fathers were close friends.
“We had a lot in common,” she said. “He loved the woods and nature and would rather be running around outside shooting BB guns, that sort of thing.”
She didn’t know Saunders as a Marine, but as a personal friend. Still, she witnessed his intellect — “he could quote books verbatim,” she said — and saw his leadership qualities, describing him as a Marine’s Marine.
In fact, Saunders was a team chief in the Marines Special Operations Command (MARSOC) and his life was marked by success every step of the way.
He played the guitar at an early age, was an Eagle Scout, excelled at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham went directly into the Marines at 17, obtaining a waiver from his parents. He went on multiple deployments and received the Bronze Star with a V for Valor for actions while on deployment in Afghanistan in 2013-14. He trained as a sniper and a scuba diver. He was a husband and proud father. He was 33 when he died.
“He was the kind of guy that if the world was ending, I would probably try to make it to his house,” Croft said.
Before making the film, she hung out with Marine special operators in another celebration of life ceremony. She got closer to the group even though the MARSOC community is “very, very guarded.” She showed her script to a couple of Marines.
“I wanted to make sure we honored them the right way,” said Croft.
“The Detail” was filmed in April 2016. Roger Wayne, the actor who plays Teague, is an Air Force veteran with co-starring roles in “The Blacklist” and “Quantico.” He can be seen in the Netflix series, “Luke Cage.” The rest of the cast is a mix of actors and Marines who fill out the rest of the party. During one scene, a man can be seen quietly strumming a guitar while others talk.
That would be John Saunders, Tom’s real-life brother.
A desire to serve
John was the youngest of the three Saunders children. Tom was oldest. Their parents worked for the government in foreign service and traveled around the world. Tom was born in Bonn, Germany. The family also lived in Sweden and Saudi Arabia.
Tom was always drawn to Marine security guard attachments at the various embassies they were assigned to, his brother remembers. The family also had a strong military tradition. Their grandfather was a career Army soldier who served in World War II and retired as chief of staff for the National Guard. Their father, an Air Force pilot, was a Vietnam veteran.
“He held both my dad and grandpa in high esteem as far as filling the shoes,” John Saunders said.
When the family moved back to Virginia, Tom enrolled in Hargrave, played sports, was accepted into the elite rifle drill team and had good grades. His SAT scores would have paved the way into college. Instead, he entered Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
“He wanted to get right into it,” John Saunders said.
His military career was a constant string of successes. Meritoriously promoted through various assignments and deployments, he eventually landed as a team chief at MARSOC. John Saunders described his brother as intensely competitive and driven to prepare.
“He always wanted to make sure that he excelled with the tools that he hand,” his brother said.
Along the way, Tom married Danielle, a master chief in the Navy. The couple had a son, Vaughan. John noticed a change in his brother after he became a father.
“He went from rough around the edges to becoming softer in some areas, not professionally, but personally,” John Saunders said. “”I almost got to know him better in the last two or three years of his life. His son meant the world to him.”
John, who also served in the Marines, was the first to learn the news when his brother was killed.
The accident happened while Tom Saunders and his team were flying in a Blackhawk helicopter during a training exercise near Eglin Air Force Base. The helicopter crashed in heavy fog, killing everyone onboard. The tragedy rocked the Marine special operations community.
According to several news accounts, including The Washington Post, the crash of the UH-60 Blackhawk was pinned on spatial disorientation, where pilots lose track of their position. At one point, the command pilot thought he was turning the aircraft to the east when it actually went north, according to a copy of the accident investigation cited by the Post.
John Saunders, who was also in the Marines at that time, heard that a helicopter had crashed with Marine special operators aboard. He phoned MARSOC headquarters and found out that it was his brother’s team.
“I had to break the news to my dad,” he said, “and my dad passed it onto my mom.”
John said his brother’s legacy is rich.
“He left a lot of work to be done, but he left a lasting impression on, especially the MARSOC community,” he said. “I know a lot of folks in that line of work. It’s a big, but small organization. They do an extremely good job of remembering their fallen folks.”
“The Detail” adds to that legacy. John enjoyed having a small, non-speaking role in the film and gives Croft credit for doing her homework. John is shown on the couch during the party, strumming the guitar that belonged to his brother, playing a bluegrass tune that he loved.
“It was cool to be able to be intertwined in the movie,” he said.
And those stuntman shots? In real life, John said his brother called them bangalore shots. It involved snorting salt, squeezing a lime in your eye, sticking a toothpick in the top of your head so it was freestanding, then downing a shot of tequila.
“Tom would tell you he came up with it,” his brother said.
The last thing viewers will see in the film is a dedication to Saunders and a request to support Raising Raiders, a volunteer-run nonprofit dedicated to serving Marines, sailors and families in the MARSOC community. Abigail Compton directs the organization. Her husband, Michael, medically retired as a special operations Marine three years ago after a series of injuries. He’s also in the film as a member of “Sean’s” unit.
The idea that Marines would spell out details of a party to be held in the event of their death is totally believable.
“It definitely happens,” Compton said.
Raising Raiders hold fundraisers and offers other help to make life easier for Marine special operators and their families. It’s a challenge she knows all too well. Her husband entered the Marines in 2003. While deployed to Afghanistan, he was shot in the head by a sniper. He survived and saw further action. Later, he suffered torn ligaments in both knees, and that physical injury led to the diagnosis of traumatic brain injury.
In the midst of all this, Abigal Compton was active in family readiness efforts and helped raise $4,000 with a morning fun run. The effort was the result of four wives sitting around a table and coming up with ideas, and it convinced them that a larger effort could do some good.
The point of Raising Raiders, she said, “is to lighten the load.”
She hopes that views who see “The Detail” at the film festival and beyond appreciate the sense of brotherhood and what each Marine will go through to help another.
“The number one thing is to honor their ultimate sacrifice and to honor the family,” she said. “The community is small and the brotherhood is strong.”
For more information on the film, go to thedetailshortfilm.com.
Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821