By Katie Eubanks
Lt. Col. Thomas Tuggle
God, country and the Gulf War
At the back of the room, someone is talking — quietly, but not quietly enough.
Lt. Col. Thomas Tuggle, a retired Marine and the director of the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers’ Training Academy (MLEOTA), hears the whisper.
Tuggle yells out: “Who’s talking!”
A woman raises her hand. “This recruit, sir.”
“Who are you talking to!”
“To Jesus, sir.”
“And what are you telling Jesus?”
“I’m asking Him to please give you some joy in your life so you won’t be so mean, sir.”
“So what did Jesus say?”
“He hasn’t answered yet, sir.”
Tuggle waits until later to laugh. Any cop who’s been trained at MLEOTA knows Tuggle wants to put the fear of God into his recruits — spiritually and figuratively. But he has plenty of joy in Jesus.
He also gets results out of people who might otherwise quit. One young man told Tuggle in an email early this year: “The only reason I finished (my MLEOTA training) was to make you proud.”
And there’s no shortage of reasons you’d want Thomas Tuggle to be proud of you.
Mr. and Mrs. Hernando Middle School
Tuggle met his future wife, Linda Jenkins, when they were 5 years old in Hernando, and he was “fascinated” by her, he says. A few years later, the two were baptized on the same day in a pond behind a church member’s home.
Life kept pairing them together in other ways, too. They were Mr. and Mrs. Hernando Middle School. Freshman class favorites. Sophomore class favorites.
Still, despite his ongoing efforts, “She wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
After briefly giving up the chase, he made one last play during their junior year of high school. He asked “Miss Jenkins” if he could carry her books to geometry class. And she let him.
He had already committed to taking another girl to prom, and Linda was upset — but she did get to dance with him.
“They started playing Whitney Houston, ‘Saving All My Love for You,’” he says. “Linda came by our table and asked my date, ‘Do you mind if he dances with me to this song?’ And she let me.”
He knows the day he and Linda officially became a couple — April 18, 1986 — as well as he knows their wedding anniversary.
“She has been my best friend.”
Tuggle joined the United States Marine Corps after high school, and Linda went to college.
After completing boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, Tuggle was sent on a four-month detachment to Camp Pendleton in Twentynine Palms, California, where he completed on-the-job training in communications. After graduating at the top of his class at Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) school, he was promoted to lance corporal.
Two months later, Tuggle got orders to go to Hawaii. Before he checked out of his unit in California, he received the highest proficiency and conduct marks (or “pros and cons”) possible, 5.0’s across the board.
When he checked into his unit in Hawaii, his new captain said, “There’s no such thing as a perfect Marine” and gave Tuggle 3.0’s. But he was unfazed.
While in Hawaii, Tuggle was named lance corporal of the quarter twice. Then he was promoted to corporal — he was only 19. And when his captain left Hawaii, he gave Tuggle his second set of 5.0 pros and cons.
“I wanted to tell him, ‘Sir you said there was no such thing as a perfect Marine,’ but I left it alone,” Tuggle says, laughing.
Highway of Death
In January 1991, Tuggle’s artillery unit was sent to Kuwait to help defeat Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.
Tuggle describes his commanding officer in Kuwait as a “daredevil” who volunteered the unit for some “wild” stunts, including firing volleys at Hussein’s army — so they would fire back — so the American radar could detect the enemy’s location and shoot rockets at them.
After a weeks-long air campaign, American troops prepared to enter Kuwait.
“The command officer got up in the meeting and said, ‘You look around, we’re going to lose a lot of you.’” He also asked for volunteers to be forward observers and to be part of the advance party — those two groups would go in first and set up for the troops coming behind.
Tuggle was part of the advance party. He had a talk with God. “God, You let me get out of this (alive), I promise You I’m going to find something else to do in life.”
The American military had already dropped leaflets explaining, in Arabic, how to surrender. But Hussein had threatened to kill the families of anyone who didn’t fight. So as the Americans came into Kuwait, Hussein’s soldiers who wanted to surrender would fire one round and then wave a white flag. They didn’t want to fight. And they were hungry.
Though initially following strict protocol to “process” those who surrendered, pretty soon “we threw them a box of MREs and said, ‘Walk that way,’” Tuggle says. “We kept going. It was supposed to take us two weeks to get (to our first objective). We got there in four hours.”
After securing Kuwait International Airport, “we drove down the Highway of Death (between Kuwait and Iraq),” he says.
“It was the Highway of Death because you had charred bodies and tanks and cars, and these are young kids.
“Anybody that brags about going to combat never experienced it.”
‘My guy is coming, and you can’t hurt him!’
Tuggle asked to be sent back to Parris Island after deployment, but the Corps couldn’t guarantee his request. So he went ahead and fulfilled his promise to God to find another career.
After living in Pittsburgh a short time, he returned to his hometown of Hernando, and the lamp factory where he’d worked as a teen. They still had his time card, four years after he’d quit, he says.
Then at church one day, a deacon asked if he’d ever considered law enforcement. Tuggle started working at Hernando PD part time, then full time. In March 1993, the department sent him to MLEOTA to go through the academy, where he graduated at the top of his class.
Tuggle loved law enforcement and learned a lot in Hernando — including from a nonlicensed part-time officer named David Adams.
“He called me TT. (One night) he said, ‘TT, put handcuffs on that guy.’ I said, ‘Why?’”
The suspect had tried to get rid of an aluminum foil package containing a white substance.
“It was the first time I’d seen crack cocaine. (Adams) was laughing at me because I didn’t
know what it was.”
In 1995, Tuggle decided to join the Mississippi Highway Patrol (MHP) and went back to MLEOTA for MHP training.
Mackey Hopkins, director of MLEOTA at the time, had tried to hire Tuggle as an instructor and was thrilled that he was coming through the academy.
“He told all those instructors, ‘My guy is coming, and you can’t hurt him!’” Tuggle says.
“They tried everything they had to prove him wrong. I like to (have) died! I wanted to call Mackey and say, ‘Please quit talking to them! You’re killing me!’ But he was just so proud (of me).”
At the completion of training, Tuggle and two or three other patrolmen got to return to their hometowns to work, rather than being sent elsewhere. But they were warned that if they slacked off in their duties, they would “find out what saltwater tastes like” – in other words, they’d be sent to the coast.
Tuggle did not want to go to the coast.
So when he returned to DeSoto County as a highway patrolman, “you talk about writing some tickets!” he says.
In the year 2000, then MLEOTA Director Pat Cronin drove up to Hernando to ask Tuggle to come work for him.
“He said, ‘I’m having racial problems in the basic program. I’m having integrity issues … I’m having male/female relations going on.’ … So I talked to my wife about it, prayed about it, (and took the job).”
Tuggle became the coordinator for basic law enforcement training at MLEOTA. And other than a two-year stint at the state Department of Public Safety, he’s been at MLEOTA ever since. He became director in April 2017.
“A lot of successful people have come through here (as recruits). It’s because we’re so regimented. (It) goes back to buying into that doctrine of the Marine Corps. Discipline works,” he says.
In 2015, Tuggle was selected to participate in the FBI National Academy, open to just the top 1 percent of law enforcement leaders in the United States and partner nations. The program gives participants 21 hours’ course credit at the University of Virginia, in addition to leadership and specialized training – and plenty of workouts.
Tuggle became the “locker room linebacker” motivating his section of the class for workouts, he says. And when the entire class worked out as a group, he’d gather everyone for prayer afterward.
Each section elected a leader. Tuggle easily won his section’s votes. He also was elected president of the entire class, which was decided after each section leader gave a speech. Like any “campaign,” the process was divisive — and when someone accused him of using the class prayer time to get votes, he got so mad he threw his speech away.
He did give a speech — just not the one he had written — and won by a landslide.
Tuggle was the first Mississippian and the first African-American to win class president at the national academy. It was also the first time anyone had walked away with a “triple crown”: section leader, class president and distinguished graduate, the latter of which was selected by staff.
At graduation, Tuggle met a woman passing out programs who had worked at the FBI National Academy for decades.
“This little black lady looked at me (when she was told I was class president), and she started crying. And she said, ‘Young man, you know you’re making history. I’ve been here since the ‘60s, and I have never seen a black (class) president.’
“Outside of being a Marine and getting married and having (our daughter, Courtney), that was one of the proudest moments of my life. I don’t tell a lot of people that,” he says.
‘Lord, have mercy’
In January, a young man named Joseph Prince sent Tuggle an email.
“This email may be out of the ordinary, but I had to find a way to express my appreciation,” Prince wrote.
At MLEOTA, he had struggled. Three weeks into the 12-week training, he was caught in a lie. Between the guilt over the lie and the anxiety about his future in law enforcement, he figured he should go home.
Then Director Tuggle called him into his office. Prince felt like he was about to experience judgment day.
“I realized at that moment that I wasn’t finished. I didn’t want to quit,” he wrote, and referred to Tuggle in the third person as he described this encounter: “As I entered his office I lost all control of my emotions. I had never cried in front of a grown man before and as I sat there in front of Director Tuggle I cried like a baby. But Director Tuggle didn’t yell nor did he give me a hard time (or judge me).
“Director Tuggle actually gave me a motivational speech of what he had experienced in life and what he valued as a man. Once he finished speaking he said, ‘Prince, you have a choice to make.’ “And when I walked out of his office I knew from then on I wasn’t going to let him down. That night I prayed and I prayed hard. I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be.”
Prayer is a crucial part of MLEOTA training, Tuggle says.
“A guy from Canada asked (me) one time … ‘How do you get away with the spiritual
component of your program?’”
Of course, Tuggle told him, it helps to be in the Bible Belt. But no recruit is ever forced to participate in prayer, which happens every morning and every night.
“I think that’s about 95 percent of why we’re so successful, is because of that spiritual component … We’ve never been told we had to take it out. And the day that we take it out will be the day that I leave.
“We don’t push religion on anybody. But if you come through this program, at some time and point, you’re going to say, ‘Lord, have mercy.’
“And that just might be the spark to tell you, hey, you’re going to find Jesus sometime in this program. (laughs) And He’s going to come right when you need Him. He might not come when you call Him, but He’s going to come on time.”
More about Lt. Col. Thomas Tuggle
His wife, Linda, is clinical director of the labor and delivery unit for Methodist Olive Branch Hospital. He commutes back and forth from MLEOTA in Pearl to his home in north Mississippi, and he and Linda try to take a trip every year.
Everyone in his Marine Corps unit made it back from the Gulf War.
The late President George H.W. Bush had a special fondness for that unit. They sent him a group photo that they took at his Presidential Library and Museum, Tuggle says. “He signed us a letter, and then he put the picture in his office until he died. And then when he died, they put it in his museum. I’m the guy on the far right with the loud-colored shoes on.”
At press time, Tuggle was a nine-time National LawFit Champion, four times as a competitor and five as a coach. (The 2019 competition was held at the end of June.)
His other job is addiction interventions. Working with Cunningham Interventions out of Atlanta, he’s helped families all over the country persuade their loved ones to get treatment. The “spiritual component” often helps with that, too, he says. “Sometimes it’s the first time the (addict) has had anyone say, ‘Let’s pray together.’”
He thinks our country is too divided.
“We’re the expert at toppling governments — we sow division, they fight and a new leader is appointed. Now we’re headed in that direction,” he says. “We see each other as liberal or conservative, not as human.”
His favorite scripture — John 3:16.