Former Ranger Makes Music from Military Memories
November 1, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 1, 2007) - He wears a bracelet inscribed with the names of friends lost in action and is getting ready for his third trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, but formern Ranger Keni Thomas has traded his weapon for a guitar and now tours with the United Service Organization instead of the Army.
He is scheduled for his third USO tour in December and his second album, "Gunslinger," will be available in the Army and Air Force Exchange Service in time for the holidays, but won't hit public stores until after the new year.
With the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment on Oct. 3, 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, when 18 Americans were killed and 78 were wounded, Mr. Thomas received the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his actions, and said that day shaped the rest of his life --from his outlook, to the songs he sings, to the charity he supports.
"I consider being part of Task Force Ranger a blessing," he said. "Whenever I'm given the opportunity, I praise those guys because I know that the people who were on my left and on my right are the only reason that I'm still around to do what I do. So I'm very, very grateful.
"Any time I ever feel like it's not working out the way I want it to or the road's too difficult, I remember where I came from. I remember that I'm here for a reason, that by all accounts I should not have walked out of that city alive, and that this is what I'm supposed to be doing now," he added.
Mr. Thomas' first album, "Flags of Our Fathers," debuted in January 2006 and is filled with patriotic soundtracks about military service and going to war, many inspired by one of his friends or battle buddies.
Making the album, he said, was therapeutic: "When you write songs, you should be writing truth. So whatever's inside you comes out one way or another."
The new album sticks to his roots, but has other themes like love and includes a tribute to his father, a Vietnam veteran.
A portion of the proceeds from both albums and all of his concerts goes to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides college educations for the children of special-forces personnel who are killed in action. The foundation also helps the Families of wounded special-forces personnel meet immediate expenses such as airline tickets and childcare.
"When you make it out of something other people did not, you will spend the rest of your life with an odd sense of guilt and it's like, 'God, why did you let me walk out of there when people who were twice the Soldier that I was, who had Families, did not' Why'' You can let that guilt bury you or motivate you. I carry a guitar. It's a gift I've been given. So you take those gifts and you use them to do positive things," Mr. Thomas said.
He's performed at the Grand Ole Opry and in front of hundreds of thousands of people at Talladega, but Mr. Thomas' favorite audiences, by far, are the servicemembers he entertains on the USO tours, because they are so appreciative, because he remembers what it is like to desperately need a break from operations and a return to normalcy.
"You go to some of these places where there's patrols going out every day and they're losing people and you do these shows, and gradually you see them unfold their arms and you see them laugh and start clapping. By the end, they're in to it and that's the whole point, just forget about where we are and the seriousness of what we're doing for right now, just take a break," he said.
The most challenging part of being back in an operational setting, he said, is that a part of him is still a Soldier, going to a war zone with a guitar. His sixth sense still works, though, and he finds himself scanning rooftops and alleyways, speaking in acronyms.
During his first trip in 2005, he said he was especially gung-ho, Keni the "singing Ranger," but the following year, he was able to relax and found that more people responded to him.
"I decided I needed to chill out and play the artist, and people who otherwise would not approach you, like sergeants major, would sit down and get to know you a little bit. If you're not playing the Soldier role, they don't feel like they have to be in charge of you or play the sergeant major. They start talking about their family. They start talking about wanting to go home too. They're the same as anyone else and in the end the gift is just letting everyone know that we care about them."
One of his most humbling experiences was seeing the same Soldiers in the same place in both 2005 and 2006, still fulfilling the mission, still waiting to go home.
He tells their Families to try not to worry: "Whether it's their third time or their first time, just remember, they're well taken care of. They've got good people on their left and on their right. They've got a nation behind them and they're going to do fine."