those who served

From Abbey Gate to the Chute Gate
Marine Corps veteran Ralph Saults survived the Abbey Gate explosion at Afghanistan’s Kabul airport in 2021. He saw 11 countries in his four years of service but, at 22, he’s ready to return to his rodeo roots.
Ralph Saults is pictured with his dad, Scott, and his brother Jate on the left and, on the right, his uncle, steer roper Will McBride.
Second from right, Ralph Saults is pictured with his dad, Scott; his brother Jate on the left; and, on the right, his uncle, steer roper Will McBride.

An avid competitor in the junior high rodeo and high school rodeo ranks in the tie-down and the team roping, Big Springs, Nebraska’s Ralph Saults has been a ranch and rodeo kid from the start. Also from the start, though, he laid a keen eye on joining the United States Marine Corps.

“Ever since I was little, I always wanted to be a Marine,” Saults, 22, said. “There are pictures and drawings: I would draw the Eagle, Globe and Anchor. I’ve had family members in the Marine Corps and, in 2019 I talked to a recruiter.”

Saults remembers his mom, Jill, being pretty upset that he wasn’t going to college, but his mind was made. He signed a four-year contract and, in 2020, he “hit the fleet.”

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Saults went to 11 different countries in his four years with the Marines, and is pictured here in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the 2021 drawdown from the war.

“Ghost Company,” Saults said, naming the unit to which he was assigned. “I got sent to 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines as a rifleman. I was just a grunt, if you will. I went on deployment in March of 2021 and we went to the Middle East. We jumped around from country to country and, then, Afghanistan popped off in August of 2021.”

In April of that year, the United States announced it would end the 20-year war in Afghanistan that began when four American passenger aircraft were hijacked by al-Qaeda in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 people on U.S. soil in 2001. But as the Aug. 31, 2021, drawdown date to bring 2,500 troops home drew near, the Taliban seized the capital of Kabul, and civilians stormed the airport in a desperate attempt to flee the regime.

“We got deployed to HKIA,” Saults said, using the acronym for the city’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. “Aug. 26, my sister platoon had 30 casualties, nine of which died out of the 13.”

Saults survived the infamous Islamic State suicide vest bombing that took nearly 200 lives at the airport’s Abbey Gate that day, 13 of which belonged to U.S. Service Members—11 Marines, a Soldier and a Sailor.

Out of the 13, 10 troops were from Saults’ Battalion and, of those, nine were in his Company. 

“All guys I’ve known since I went in in 2020,” he said. “Guys I’ve trained with over and over, worked with.”

Then, he and the remaining troops were pulled out by month’s end, after evacuating an estimated 124,000 people through the airport.

“It was such a blur because we never slept,” Saults recalled. “The media didn’t really pick up on a lot of what actually happened over there. It’s hard to explain. I still haven’t been able to put a lot of things into words, and I’m okay with that. I don’t need to explain everything.”

By September 2021, Saults was back on U.S. soil and, in 2022, he was promoted to Corporal. He went through the Corps’ Advanced Infantry Marine Course—a squad leader course—and was given his own squad for four months before being given a Platoon Sgt. billet. Then, it was time for him to decide if he wanted to re-enlist or not.

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“The Marine Corps was an awesome experience,” Saults said. “By the time I was 21, I’d been to four or five different continents. I’ve been to 11 countries. I’ve walked where Jesus walked across the Middle East.

“It’s a pretty cool experience,” he continued. “A little bit different than most 20-year-olds are going to do. There’s a lot of life experiences thrown at you when you’re really young. You grow up really quick, and you find out what you want to do.”

Despite the recent upward trajectory in his military career and his childhood yearnings, Saults developed a pretty solid handle on his next steps.

“I want to go back to being a cowboy. I want to get a rope back in my hand and go college rodeo while I have a couple years while I still can.”

In 2023, Saults is attending Western Oklahoma State College in pursuit of his Farm and Ranch Management degree. There, he is also tie-down and team roping on the rodeo team under Coach Jess Tierney, who’s ranked No. 4 in the world ahead of press time and November’s 2023 National Steer Roping Finals. 

In the future, Saults hopes to run and grow the family’s black Angus and horse program but, right now, he’s on the road roping with his younger brother, Jate, as they take on the Central Plains Region. 

Jate also competes in the steer roping and, of note, Saults’ twin sister, Josee, breakaways and runs barrels and is 2024’s Miss Rodeo Nebraska. He has an older sister, too, but out of the siblings, he ropes most with Jate.

Ralph and Jate Saults college rodeo together in the Central Plains Region and are partners in the team roping.

“I have a chance to go college rodeo and team rope with my brother,” Saults said. “He was a freshman when I was a senior. We team roped in high school together, that one year that we could. We didn’t make the high school finals, but it was a good year. We roped good. And Jate, he won the team roping his senior year, while I was still in the Marine Corps.”

After four years of rarely roping—he did seize a few opportunities to rope in California when he was stateside—Saults is focused on getting his horsemanship lined out and some day, getting his card to ProRodeo.

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“My No. 1 horse, Mic, my brother steer trips on him, as well. He’s a big, dark brown horse. He’s a good horse. And then, my calf horse’s name is Tango. He’s a little bit older, but he’s a seasoned calf horse. He gets it. He’ll drag one across your leg. He feels good. He breaks hard. I like Tango a lot.”

With good horses beneath him, his brother roping behind him, and a future on the family ranch ahead of him, this Marine is ready to seize what’s next.

“I’m not holding back,” Saults stated. “I’m going to live life to the fullest because a lot of my friends, they don’t get that chance.” TRJ

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