Posted on April 6, 2016
Spend an hour on the phone with Gunnery Sergeant Thomas McRae and you’re likely to notice his speech punctuated by frequent laughter and occasional puffs on a cigar.
And when you ask him at the end of the hour whether there’s anything else about his story that people need to know, he takes a thoughtful puff of his stogie and responds with a chuckle, “I just recommend not stepping on a bomb.”
Thomas McRae was born and raised in Alaska. As a teen, he moved to Las Vegas where, shortly after graduating high school in 2000, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Thomas deployed four times as an infantryman: once to Japan from where he went to Bahrain and did force protection and three more deployments to Iraq. After his fourth deployment, he left the infantry and volunteered for explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) work.
“EOD is all volunteer,” he explains, “you have to actually apply for it. I was really hitting a point where I was unhappy with the way my career was going, so I started looking at the job and what the job entails, and I decided that was for me. I went to school for a year. It was rigorous—you learn how to deal with everything from IEDs and fuses to WMDs and nukes.”
Thomas deployed twice more, both times to Afghanistan: once in early 2010 and again in late 2011. On January 16, 2012, in the town of Sangin, his life took a turn.
“We had a bomb disposal robot that got stuck in a compound,” he explains. “I went back to the truck in an area we had cleared to get some equipment, and as I was heading back I stepped on an IED that was 15-20 pounds. I lost both legs above the knees, lost my left arm above the elbow and had a bad head wound—something hit my eye socket and shot bone fragments into my brain.”
Thomas woke up four months later in a VA hospital, after which his parents had him transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“When I came to, I wasn’t surprised when I actually started remembering what happened,” Thomas says, referring to the frequency with which EOD work results in severe injury. “Hey, it happens. Before we left, I set up a Lower Extremity Appreciation Day, which included a foot massage.”
Thomas first became involved with the Semper Fi Fund while he was at Walter Reed. “I did a couple of outings and I took advantage of a vehicle purchase grant,” he notes. “I’m pretty sure my computer came from Semper Fi Fund, too.”
“My mom basically gave up her life to be down at Walter Reed,” he continues. “She moved from Alaska down here; my stepdad still works there. They bought a house, and they ended up having to have it remodeled for me. It was a 1960s home, outdated and relatively small. We had to have two ramps put on it, and then all the doors needed to be widened, the closet was widened, the bathroom was made completely accessible with a roll-in shower—the whole house was modified to enable me to get around in it.”
When Thomas’ parents were having issues with financing the renovation, which turned out to be an eight-month project, Home Depot and the Semper Fi Fund stepped in.
“What Semper Fi Fund and Home Depot did was really cover that gap of what would have had to be financed by my parents, who were really working off of one paycheck earned off of eight months out of the year.” Why just eight months? “My stepdad drives an excavator, he does construction. Up in Alaska, construction work shuts down once the ground starts to freeze—he used to plow snow in the winter, but he doesn’t do that anymore so he can come down here.”
Thomas medically retired from the Corps on June 29, 2014. He enjoys riding horses and spending time with his seven-year-old daughter. When asked what his experience taught him about people and life that the rest of us may not know, he took a long, thoughtful pause before responding.
“I would say mostly my experience really humbled me and made me more of a believer in helping people around you. Because you’re gonna need help at some point. By getting help from people that didn’t ask for anything from it, it taught me to help other people. And then some patience. A lot of patience. You gotta have a sense of humor, too—every time you fall down, you gotta laugh.”
“What some people have a hard time with is not dwelling on what happened,” he continued. “I think that’s where a lot of guys lose it, they dwell on what happened. I went to war over and over and over again, and bad stuff happens. I’m more concerned with what happened to my friends than I am with what happened to me, in all honesty; I won’t dwell a day on what happened to me, but I sure will on what happened to some of my friends.”
“Meanwhile, I’m alive and kicking—even if I don’t have legs!”