CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- Nearly four months into their combat deployment, Marines and sailors with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, experienced a heartbreaking loss.
Sergeant Thomas Z. Spitzer, a team leader with Scout Sniper Platoon, 1st Bn., 7th Marines, was killed while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan, June 25.
Spitzer, a 23-year-old native of New Braunfels, Texas, was born Feb. 28, 1991. He began his Marine Corps career Aug. 21, 2009, when he underwent recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. He graduated from recruit training Nov. 13, 2009, and then reported to the School of Infantry aboard Camp Pendleton, California. After a grueling three-month training evolution, he earned the military occupational specialty of 0341, infantry mortarman.
Spitzer was assigned to 81 mm Mortar Section, Weapons Company, 1st Bn., 7th Marines, upon completion of SOI. During July 2010, he deployed in support of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and during March 2012, he deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
After being a mortarman for four years, Spitzer decided to take on a new challenge and volunteered to attend a scout sniper platoon screener.
“We started with about 20 Marines in that screener,” said Petty Officer Third Class Jordan Lowe, a corpsman with Scout Sniper Platoon. “We only ended up taking four of them because at the end of the first day 16 of them had dropped.”
In the searing heat of Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, he proved to his leadership that his determination and skill far exceeded anybody’s expectations for those trying out for a spot in the platoon. He was immediately regarded by others as a Marine who represented much more than being just physically and mentally tough. He was also extremely intelligent, humble and had a hunger for success like nobody else.
Once he earned his spot in the platoon, he soon underwent rigorous predeployment training in preparation for his second deployment to Afghanistan in support of OEF. He quickly grasped the concepts of advanced marksmanship, scouting and observing. He continuously studied, asked questions and gave 100 percent effort during every training exercise he participated in.
“What truly made Spitzer unique was not necessarily that he was such a quick learner, it was that he put everything else aside to ensure those around him grasped the same concepts,” said Capt. John Dove, the commanding officer of Headquarters and Service Company, 1st Bn., 7th Marines. “He took it as his personal responsibility to ensure others succeeded and he perfectly displayed what is expected of strong noncommissioned officers.”
Spitzer’s drive and care for others continued with the battalion’s mission in Afghanistan. He conducted multiple operations in support of Bravo and Weapons companies with a cheerful heart, always leading from the front.
“About two weeks ago I was told that I was to take the jump section and establish a coordination point with the 3rd (Brigade Advisor Team) to liaise with the Afghan National Army in support of the Provincial Support Platform-South retrograde,” Dove said. “The coordination point was to be established on a small ANA outpost off of Highway 1 in an area known for kinetics. Security remained a concern; however, due to their availability that week, I quickly jumped at the opportunity to have the professionals of the sniper platoon to provide our security.”
The section arrived at Patrol Base Yakchal during the evening of June 24 and set in. That night the Marines began taking a high volume of grenade attacks and automatic fire. Spitzer quickly identified the enemy location and directed his vehicle gunner to engage the enemy in a nearby tree line. This fire allowed for other Marines to maneuver to positions of advantage on rooftop posts, forcing the enemy to withdraw.
“The next day, we had a strong feeling that the enemy would be coming back to fire from the same general area at the same general time,” Dove said.
Knowing that, Spitzer volunteered to man an M240B medium machine gun covering the sector most likely to receive enemy contact. The position overlooked a tree line with thick vegetation that would allow the enemy to come undetected in close proximity of the patrol base.
Spitzer was defending his fellow Marines and sailors, his brothers, when he was struck by small-arms fire. Lowe was immediately on the scene to treat Spitzer.
“Any corpsman that is in a division has gone through so much training and has had a lot of exposure to certain things like this, but you never know exactly what it’s going to be like until it happens,” Lowe said. “For the most part the training kicks in and your body starts working, but mentally your mind is just in shock. It sucks to lose somebody, especially somebody that’s the same age as you. I think about if I was in that position, having to leave my family, parents, wife and kid behind, and it really gets to me.”
Spitzer gave his life defending a position that enabled coordination between coalition and Afghan forces, coordination that was vital for the safe retrograde of logistics and advisor personnel from their position in Lashkar Gah along a dangerous route back to Camp Leatherneck.
Corporal Matthew Kearney, a professionally instructed gunman on Spitzer’s team, was aboard Camp Leatherneck that evening when he heard what had happened.
“I was preparing for our next mission and was waiting to hear about my next orders,” Kearney said. “When I found out, I got on my bike and rode that thing like a madman to get to the hospital. He was such a tough guy; I had never seen him in pain because he never showed it. I just can’t believe he’s gone. Part of me just expects that he’s going to kick open my door.”
The battalion honored his sacrifice during a memorial ceremony aboard Camp Leatherneck, July 2. Several Marines spoke of the memories they shared and the legacy he left behind before the ceremony concluded with a 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps” by a fellow Marine with a bugle.
Taps is a simple melody. It is a mere 24 notes, but holds more than 150 years of tradition. It can express gratitude when words fail. It honors the men and women who have laid down their lives and have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom.
Spitzer’s sacrifice is measured by the success of a mission that ensured the eventual safe return of those Marines and sailors to their loved ones. Beyond the measure of his sacrifice, the measure of his life is the people he impacted through his example, his leadership and his love.
“I just want his family to know how incredibly sorry I am,” Kearney said. “They raised an incredible man. He was one of those guys who I look up to, both in my personal life and in my career.”
Spitzer is survived by his parents John and Jean Spitzer, his brother Nicholas Spitzer and his fiancé Casey Neef.