In Tom Martin’s life, the U.S. Army seemed like the family trade.
His dad, Ed, put in 29 years. His mom, Candy, 38. Erika (Noyes) Holownia, his fiancé, graduated from West Point in 2005, the same year as Tom. They served in Iraq together. She flew helicopters to airlift injured soldiers; he ran a sniper team. When she choppered into his base, he’d run out and say “Hi” for the two minutes she was on the ground.
“I love Calvin and Hobbes, watching movies and the Army,” he wrote in one of his popular blog posts. He also like the Cincinnati Bengals, the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, beer (Guinness) and scotch (Glenlivet). His friends razzed him that he’d stay in the Army until he had “forty eleven years of service.”
He did not get that many.
Tom’s story, organized into five neat manila folders and two oral histories completed by his parents under the Gold Star Family Voices Act in the Veterans History Project, is one of the recent, moving additions to the Library’s 108,000-and-counting story collection of the lives of veterans from World War I forward. Veterans use everything to tell of their stories — on-camera interviews, emails, drawings, photographs, military paperwork — and thousands of volunteers use the project’s guidelines to help them organize it.
“These aren’t dusty documents on a shelf,” says Megan Harris, Senior Reference Specialist for the project, holding the folders that tell Tom’s story. “These are things that are very, very personal.”
Some of the stories are dramatic. Some are simple. All of them are tiles in the historical mosaic. Tom’s is a short story, but is true in fact and in its unadorned honesty. It is beautiful that way.
It goes like this.
Thomas Michael Martin was born in 1980 in Huron, South Dakota. The family left shortly thereafter and wound up in Cabot, Ark. He was active in church, 4-H, played in the school band, and went from Boy Scout to Eagle Scout. After high school, he enlisted in the Army and, in due time, wound up at West Point.
As a cadet, he started on the rugby team. He got his Parachutist Badge. He went to Ranger School and got the tab for that, too. He also fell in love with Erika, his fellow cadet. They are a handsome couple, him tall and broad-shouldered; she shorter and wiry. They seem to be on the verge of laughter in all their pictures. His first posting was at Fort Richardson, Alaska. About a year after graduation, she flew to visit him for the Labor Day weekend. They took a cruise tour of the Kenai Fjords. When the ship paused at a glacier, he was ready. As he later wrote on his blog:
“We were facing the ice and I hugged her from behind and started talking about how life was perfect when we were together and how I wanted that in the future. I talked about all the trips we’ve taken and the good times we’ve spent together and how I thought we both wouldn’t mind doing stuff like that for the rest of our lives….I turned her around so she was facing me I got down on one knee and brought out the ring and asked her to marry me. She rather adamantly said yes and as I put the ring on her finger the people around us started clapping and cheering. It was perfect.”
They made plans for the wedding. But first, they both had active duty stints in Iraq. They were headed to a dangerous region south of Baghdad, between Sunni and Shiite areas; her unit would be in support of his.
It was an ironic posting. Tom’s mother, Candy, served an active tour (as a warrant officer) in that area from 2005-6.
“We’ll be fine,” he wrote on his blog.
For a year, he was. He was a 1st Lieutenant in Troop C, 1st Squadron, 40th Calvary, 4th Brigade Combat Team, detailed as Scout Sniper Platoon Leader. He went on more than 300 missions and walked more than 600 miles on active duty, his family later noted.
On October 14, 2007, in the dead of night, his unit was on patrol when they came under attack. Shots were exchanged. At 1:21 a.m., one of those rounds found Tom. Then another. They did their work, there in the darkness, deep in the night. Frantic radio calls for help. A helicopter rushed to pick him up. “I knew it was Tom right away,” Erika later told Maxim magazine, when she heard the call go out.
Everyone did everything they could. But 27 minutes later, Thomas Michael Martin’s heart stopped beating. The casualty category, on the military form that listed his passing, was as terse as it was final: “Killed in Action.”
He was 27. He was buried in West Point National Cemetery.
But his story, his life and what it meant, to his country and to those who loved him, kept going. Erika was offered a chance to transfer, but stayed in Iraq to finish her posting. “At least if I was in Iraq, I stood a chance of helping somebody else. And potentially that next person we picked up would be somebody else’s Tom,” she told Maxim. The family set up a memorial foundation his name. Candy served as national president of American Gold Star Mothers Inc. She and Ed have devoted their retirement to a slew of volunteer groups serving soldiers.
It’s a fine and touching military family story, tinged by heartbreak and sacrifice. It lingers with you, after the folders are closed and the papers put away. Its resting place is the Thomas Michael Martin Veterans History Project Collection.