WILLIAMSBURG, VA (WWBT) - For the first time, the family of the Marine from Williamsburg who was killed in a military helicopter crash last week is speaking out. Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders was among seven Marines and four soldiers killed during a training exercise off the Florida panhandle.
He also leaves behind a wife and a 20-month old son.
Master Sgt. Saunders' family says he was described as a force of nature in the military, but he was much more than that. He served his country since his parents signed his enlistment papers when he was 17, after attending the Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham.
He eventually became one of the Marine Corps' elite members. "He got so much respect is because he gave so much respect to his team members, that was a big part of it," says Allen Saunders, his father.
Master Sgt. Saunders survived multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. But he would lose his life in a training exercise when the Black Hawk helicopter he was riding in crashed off of Florida's panhandle during a heavy fog. His brother, Sgt John E. Saunders, who is also a fellow Marine, was the first to find out. "They didn't have a fighting chance, had they had a fighting chance they'd all be here right now," he said.
While the loss is overwhelming, there is still joy in remembering the life this man led. "He's irreplaceable," says Barbara Saunders, his mother. "We have just the immense satisfaction in knowing that he lived every single minute of life."
His family says the men who died in that crash had developed a strong bond after coming back from Afghanistan last year. And there is some comfort that they were together. "He was surrounded by his brothers and he was surrounded by people who loved him and he loved back," says Sgt. John E. Saunders.
But Master Sgt. Saunders also leaves behind a wife and their son Vaughn. His wife is in the U.S. Navy. The Saunders family says the loss these young families will now face is the most heartbreaking thing of all. "We had all the time that he was here and these young families obviously have only had their husbands, their dads for a little while and I can't imagine their feelings of looking ahead without those magnificent men who were in their lives," says Barbara Saunders.
The logistics still need to be worked out but Master Sgt. Saunders' family tells NBC12 he will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders served as a team chief for 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.His family says he died on his eighth wedding anniversary and he only planned to have one more deployment.
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