For The Love Of Diesels

More than just a great military family

February 2015 Feature Jeffrey V. Shirts

Corporal Cory Thomas of the Marine Corps hales from a strong tradition of military history. His father, Sergeant Ernest “Ernie” R. Thomas, and his mother, Specialist Christa “Chris” Thomas, served in the United States Army through the end of Operation Desert Storm. Cory’s maternal great-grandfather was drafted during World War II and Cory’s paternal grandfather, Private First Class Ernest Thomas Sr., served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War.

However, military service is not the only tradition the family shares. In this family, the father, mother and son all share a love for diesel vehicles, modifications, and the bond forged for one another through shared experiences and passions.

Thomas Family

Nearly all of Cory’s family enlisted and served in the Armed Forces. His father, Ernie Jr., mentioned that Cory’s uncles had enlisted, his mother is a veteran, and now he is a veteran as well. Cory’s father, Ernie, joined the United States Army in 1982, and served until shortly after the Gulf War. Entering the Armed Forces was one of the defining moments of his life, especially because he met his wife, Christa, in the Army Reserves.

Cory’s mother, Chris, immigrated to the United States from Germany when she was 18 years old and later enlisted in the Army as a medic. Her grandfather was drafted and fought in the German Wehrmacht during WW2 on the Eastern Front. Chris recalled that he walked home from Russia wearing burlap for shoes, only to discover that the Third Reich had seized his family transportation business.

Ernie worked several different positions while serving our country. Deployed to Berlin, Germany, Ernie guarded the imprisoned Rudolf Hess, Deputy Führer and third in command of the Nazi Third Reich, under Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring. When the Gulf War broke out in 1990, Cory was a few months old, and it was an intense time for Ernie and Chris, as they were part of the same reserve unit with talk of being activated to support the war at any moment.

His Own Path

For his part, Cory decided to join the Marines after attending the funeral of his paternal grandfather. Before passing, Ernie Sr. served during the Korean War and his funeral was given with full military honors, 21 gun salute, Taps and all. At the time his father remarked that Cory was a typical pierced rebellious teenager seemingly without cares in the world.

Within a week of the funeral, however, Cory informed his parents he planned to enlist in the Marine Corps as an infantryman. Ernie and Chris attempted to talk Cory out of the infantry, knowing from experience that serving in the military was not at all similar to video games and movies. However, Cory’s mind was set, he knew what he wanted to do and he was determined. Cory enlisted in 2009.

While installing new gauges on Independence Day of 2012, Ernie received a call from Cory. After completing military operations he had the privilege of being transported aboard the vehicle which at that time had recently transported the remains of Osama bin Laden. Emotional, Ernie expressed his pride in his son and his gratitude that his son was safe and protected.

“It’s always different when your children go to war,” says Cory’s mother, reflecting on his time overseas.


The history of the Thomas family couldn’t be told without looking at their trucks. Ernie drives a 1999 F350 Power Stroke, a truck he bought from Cory early in 2013. Before owning the Ford, Cory had purchased an F250 and was privileged to drive the truck for less than a week before it was totaled by a reckless driver running a red light. Looking for more power and a considerable upgrade, Cory purchased the F350 the family now lovingly calls Beast.

While Cory was deployed, Ernie took care of and upgraded Beast, with the exception of the modifications upgraded by Strictly Diesel in Phoenix, Ariz. After returning home, Cory would take the Power Stroke off-road, taking full advantage of California and Arizona’s open spaces. After blowing his transmission and the transfer case, Cory decided it was time to upgrade once again, especially since he was soon to be a father. This time he purchased his current Ram. Cory contacted his father and asked if he wanted to buy Beast, and Chris and Ernie both readily agreed together. They wanted the truck.


Beast is a 7.3L Power Stroke with 300k miles on the odometer. Since owning and upgrading the diesel, the truck has been used for everything from hauling cars across country for Cory’s family while he was still stationed in California, to pulling trailers and cutting paths through Michigan snow banks piled over 4 feet high. With the modifications, the Ford can easily haul over a ton in the bed without affecting the driving performance.

The modifications range from engine upgrades and enhancements to refitting the exhaust and more. The long list of alterations includes adding a set of AutoMeter gauges on the pillar, a CFM Plus Diesel Performance Intake Manifold and an ATS ported compressor housing, which breaths through a K&N filter. Recently Ernie installed a Dieselsite Bypass Coolant filtration system and a new 203-degree thermostat, which was a godsend during the last Michigan winter.

One of the most eye-catching alterations to the Power Stroke is a pair of MBRP 8-inch stainless steel exhaust stacks, installed by Strictly Diesel in Arizona. Ernie performed the install of a 5-inch stainless aFe muffler into the exhaust system, which helped tame the roar of the 7.3L to a more tolerable level. Beast rolls on Hankook Dynapro ATM tires fitted on a set of V-Tec wheels.

Future Plans

Ernie and Cory are not finished altering this truck. Future upgrades in the works include installation of a Dieselsite transmission filter setup, fuel filter water separator, as well as an onboard air system to run a proper set of air horns for a truck this size. The set of Wolo Philly Express horns are planned to be mounted under the bed and under the hood, their plans include installation of bellowed-up pipes, elimination of a pesky, leaking exhaust bypass valve, new CAC boots, and the install of a Turbo Master wastegate controller.
“I worked on my son’s truck during the time he was deployed in Afghanistan,” recalls Ernie. “I spent the summer of 2012 installing modifications, grinding rust from the frame—I poured my heart into the truck awaiting his return. That connection with what I was doing for him runs very deep. I’ve spent so much time with the truck that I could never part with it.”

An Investment

After selling the ’99 Ford to his parents, Cory purchased a 2004 Dodge Ram 2500 in February 2013. Cory’s Ram hasn’t been without incident, and, according to the family, has required numerous repairs to realize the vision Cory has for it. At one point, Ernie joked, the Dodge had spent more time in the shop being repaired than on the road, earning the Dodge the affectionate nickname, Money Pit.

Passion for the trails and breaking free of the paved roads pushed the Ram’s modifications to enhance the performance of their diesel. With a passion for driving off-road, Pure Performance fully adjustable control arms, as well as a Pure Performance adjustable track bar, were installed to smooth out the rough rides while not negatively affecting the experience.

To protect his truck, some mandatory upgrades were next in the form of an aFe differential cover, drilled and slotted rotors to increase control over breaking, along with the Bilstein 5100 steering stabilizer to ensure that the truck was under control at all times. Further safety upgrades included rear leaf spring drop shackles and BD sway bar links, and rear suspension helper bags were also added to round out the off-road experience.

Over the lifetime of the truck, Cory and Ernie wanted to increase the off-road performance, while adding a touch of style to the power. Looking inward, it was time to tackle the engine. For monitoring the performance, an EDGE CTS monitor was installed and Cummins received a Smarty tuned adjustment. A FASS lift pump was also added to increase horsepower and to ensure the engine continued to run properly. Flex-a-Lite cooling fans and a Legendary Diesel Performance intake horn were added to boost performance. With a FLO-PRO exhaust system, the current modifications are now complete.

Internally however, the engine and performance is not where Cory wants his diesel to be.  With that in mind the next upgrades planned for the engine include an S366 Turbo featuring a second generation exhaust manifold, Exergy Performance 60 percent over injectors and dual CP3 injectors. Cory is also considering adding a custom built fully billet street and strip transmission from Street Diesel Solutions.  Finally, still thinking of safety, Cory wants to add traction bars as well.

“The military is what ultimately started my love of diesels,” says Cory. “Being around diesel-powered vehicles, it amazes me the abuse these machines take and continue to run hundreds of thousands of miles. My diesel hobby quickly became a full-blown obsession, and I am now pursuing my associate degree in diesel technology.”

Looking over the history of his family and the two trucks he’s modified, nothing can hold back his passion and vision moving forward.

For products in this feature, visit our Aftermarket.

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