Military veteran and instructor recounts his journey to hope

Nancy Doolittle
Cornell community members listen to Thomas Herrera at Soup and Hope.


During the course of his military career, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Herrera, assistant Marine officer instructor at Cornell, graduated in the top 10 percent of his class in every academic and military training school he attended, was given highly dangerous and technical responsibilities, and was named Commander of Naval Air Forces United States Pacific Fleet Marine of the Year because of his managerial acumen and caring for those reporting to him.

In his talk at Soup and Hope in Sage Chapel Feb. 2, Herrera focused on his struggles to overcome his lifelong reputation as a “troublemaker,” “loser” and someone who “always makes dumb mistakes.” He has come to realize that hope comes when others have faith in him, and when he has faith, he can then inspire them to hope as well.

Herrera said his mother raised him in the church but he hated it, much preferring to play basketball – and yet, he admits, that grounding likely saved him later on.

As early as third grade, he remembers his classmates teasing him, getting in trouble and the teacher taking him to the principal’s office, calling him a loser and later telling his mother that he would probably end up in prison.

Such incidents continued throughout Herrera’s school years, but he persevered. Shortly after graduating from high school, he made another “dumb decision” when his father asked him to be awake the next morning by 6 a.m. to help him pick up an engine in a nearby town, but Herrera went out partying and arrived home at 6:20 a.m., after his father had already left.

Herrera got back in the family’s truck, started to drive, fell asleep and hit an oak tree. When he woke up, an ambulance had arrived at the scene, his teeth were shattered, glass covered his face and the truck was totaled. His mother was in tears and his father, also upset, asked him why he made such a poor decision in partying late the night before.

When Herrera saw that his crash had just taken a little bark off the oak tree, he thought, “This is indicative of my life. I can’t even make an impact on an oak tree.” He pushed through those feelings though, because his parents always supported him through tough love, reinforced through the church. They gave him hope by believing in him even when he didn’t believe in himself.

Years later, Herrera decided to become a Navy Seal. Because of his troublemaker ways, the Navy did not allow him to enlist in the service, and Herrera once again felt he had let his parents down. 

That made him decide to change his life for the better. He went into the restaurant business, working his way from busboy to successful co-owner and later decided to go into the U.S. Marine Corps.

He was accepted and went to boot camp, where his feelings of unworthiness were reinforced. But he felt that the purpose of instructors should be to give their students vision, and he went on to be a Drill Instructor himself. He later became an assistant Marine officer instructor at Cornell, teaching the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students.

“This is an institution founded on only taking the best students out there, extraordinary people. You bring them in, you teach them stuff and you put them out in the world where they do extraordinary things,” Herrera said. He also took classes at Cornell, where he found teachers who had faith in him and gave him hope that he could inspire others and continue his educational pursuits.

“I believe if you invest in somebody, if you believe in somebody, you’ll get a return on your investment,” Herrera said.

Now he takes his inspiration from his young son Jackson. At first, Herrera doubted his parenting skills because his one-year old son had not yet begun to walk. But on this last Christmas Day, his son took two steps, fell down, got up, took two more, fell down – and looked up, slapped his hands on the floor and smiled.

“He already gets it,” Herrera said. “He knows there will be days he stumbles and falls, but he’ll laugh it off and lift himself up. He gives me hope, he warms my soul.”