The week before her death from stage 4 breast cancer, Marine Corps veteran Kate Hendricks Thomas considered attending a press conference in support of burn pit legislation. She had often testified on the issue, shared her own battles with cancer and tirelessly advocated for other veterans.
One of Thomas’s best friends, Sarah Plummer Taylor, smiled as she remembered Thomas’ cheerful presence and the effect she had on those around her.
“People are fangirling her,” said Plummer Taylor Coffee or Die Magazine. “Everyone wanted a piece of Kate.”
Even as she entered the emergency room on Sunday, April 3, Thomas responded to text messages from friends who wanted to know if they could come visit.
“No, not now,” she replied. “I’m on my way to the hospital. Maybe later.”
Thomas passed away on Tuesday, April 5 at the age of 42, leaving behind a husband, a son, and a legacy of resilience that inspired countless others and is poised to change the way future generations veterans receive care.
Plummer Taylor met Thomas in 1999 during Air Force ROTC at the University of Virginia. Thomas was a year older, but the couple clicked right away and became roommates the following year. Thomas was like the idealized version of a big sister: protective, fun, and willing to give a little love if needed.
Thomas, who came from a Marine Corps family, decided to switch to Marine Corps ROTC and she completed Officer Candidate School. When Plummer Taylor followed a year later, Thomas gave her a gift. It was a tape of Marine Corps cadences, the call-and-response work songs that Marines sing as they march.
“You have to listen to this tape every time you run,” Thomas said. “It’s the only way to get in and get to work, because they’re going to ask you to call the cadence, and everyone is going to fumble. If you can come out there on day one and sing those beats, you’re gonna crush it.
So every time she ran—often with Thomas by her side—Plummer Taylor slipped that tape into her Walkman and sang the beats.
Thomas’ drive to be the best he could be was contagious. The pair scrambled into the floor and did pull-ups until their arms were shaking.
During OCS endurance classes, women were given boxes to help them overcome certain obstacles that required intense upper-body strength, Plummer Taylor recalled.
“Kate always said, ‘You never have to use those goddamn boxes,'” Plummer Taylor said. “In the Marine Corps, one place where you could prove in a very tangible way that you deserved to be there was physical fitness. If we could do like the guys, then they had no right to tell us that we shouldn’t be there.
Thomas deployed to Fallujah, Iraq in early 2005 as a military police officer. For months she lived, patrolled, and made her daily rounds around the base’s burning hearth, oblivious to the thick black smoke billowing from the air she breathed.
His younger brother Matt was also a Marine, and he deployed to Iraq at the same time. Near the end of his deployment, Thomas received the phone call that the loved ones of all service members dread. Matt’s truck had hit an improvised explosive device.
Matt underwent medical evacuation and spent months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Thomas stayed by his brother’s bedside for weeks, Plummer Taylor said.
Outwardly, Thomas appeared unscathed from the war.
She left active duty in 2008, returned to school, and earned a doctorate in health education and promotion. She got married, had a son named Matthew and in 2015 published her first book, Brave, strong, true: The modern warrior’s battle for balance, blending his personal narrative with wellness research to promote resilience among the US military and veterans. Other books followed, examining the mental health of veterans and the unique experiences of women in the military.
Then, in January 2018, Thomas had a mammogram. At 38, she felt healthy, but her nurse practitioner recommended that she be checked because of her service in Iraq.
She had stage 4 breast cancer. And not just one type, but three.
“They said I looked like I was immersed in something,” Thomas said. ABC News in 2021. “I had metastases all over my skeletal system, from my skull to my toes.”
After her diagnosis, Thomas began noticing how worrisome the cancer was among other female veterans. She met the only other woman in her unit in Iraq, and it turned out she had the exact same type of cancer as Thomas.
Young military women have 20% to 40% higher breast cancer rates than civilian women, Department of Veterans Affairs funded to research. And one AV report 2015 suggested that more than 3.5 million veterans may have been exposed to fire pits in Afghanistan, Djibouti, or the Southwest Asian theater of operations. But the VA has historically made difficult for veterans to prove that their illnesses are linked to the burning fireplaces.
Thomas said she had no family history of breast cancer and her oncologist believed it was related to the exposure. She has been back and forth with the VA for years, but the department has denied her claim for benefits and all appeals through July 2021, more than three years after the five doctors estimated she would live.
She began to plan for a shorter future and made sure every minute counted, even when her friends and family urged her to slow down and rest.
In February 2020, Thomas and Plummer Taylor printed all of their essays, personal stories, and research papers and spread them out on a table to organize them into one seminal book. Thomas thought it would be the last book she would write before she died, so it had to count. Stopping Military Suicides: Veteran Voices to Help Prevent Deaths was released in 2021.
She continued to teach for George Mason University’s Department of Global and Community Health for as long as she could, and gave frequent in-person and virtual lectures on cancer, research, issues faced by women in the military, and more.
In March, the US Senate unanimously approved the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans in Combat Environments (SERVICE) Lawwhich would require the AV to provide mammograms to all women who served in areas known to be associated with burn pits and other toxic substances.
Thomas also testified recently in support of the House’s sweeping Honoring our Promise to Address Toxic Substances Act, known as the PACTE law. Although Thomas ultimately decided she didn’t feel well enough to attend a march 29 press conference on Capitol Hill in support of the legislation, Plummer Taylor said Thomas’ drive to inspire others and contribute to the world lasted until the very end.
Thomas passed away peacefully on Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by her husband, brother and parents, her husband, Shane, wrote on the Thomas website.
“She has accomplished more in this life than many do in a lifetime,” he wrote. “I love you darling. See you later.”
Plummer Taylor has lost track of all the stories she’s told over the past two days about her kind and “wickedly smart” friend who always lit up the room. She has over 20 years of friendship and sisterhood looking back, but one recent memory in particular makes him smile.
She always called Thomas on her walks, and the week before Thomas started hospice was no different.
“Kate, how are you? Plummer Taylor asked, knowing her friend had been in increased pain lately.
But Thomas has never been one to focus on the negative. Instead, she told Plummer Taylor to go to yoga and have tea with a friend.
“I chose to have a good day today,” said Thomas. “So I did.”
Read more : How a family of 10, with the help of American veterans, escaped Afghanistan