One mean street to another: From Camden, N.J., to Baghdad, one Soldier shares his story of success
November 15, 2007
FORWARD OPERATING BASE PROSPERITY, Iraq - Anyone who has gone to a Soldier of the Month or promotion board, knows how intense and intimidating it can be, no matter how much studying and prior preparation.
For Sgt. Chris Thomas, it wasn't just one board, two, or even three. He achieved what only one Soldier in an entire brigade could do: win five boards en route to being crowned the 2nd "Black Jack" Brigade Combat Team's Soldier of the Year.
Reflecting on the victory, Thomas remembers what it took to get to where he is today.
The Thomas family began in Brooklyn, N.Y. Chris was the oldest of four boys. At age seven, Thomas and his family moved from Brooklyn to Camden, N.J.
Here, Thomas would grow up being what he considered the leader of the family. His father, a former Marine, would give him the orders and Thomas would let the other brothers know just what Dad needed done.
"Being a leader kind of came easy to me," he said. "I was the oldest, so I had to take on a lot more responsibility and be the front runner for me and my brothers."
Growing up in Camden, Thomas was introduced to the competitive nature that would later push him to become the Black Jack's top Soldier and a noncommissioned officer.
"Everything was a competition where I grew up," he said. "Didn't matter what it was. Who could throw a football the farthest or who could run the fastest; it was all about being the best in the neighborhood."
During his junior year in high school, Thomas was approached by an Army recruiter. He didn't take it too seriously at first, but knew that if he didn't have a plan, he'd be stuck in Camden going nowhere.
"I've always felt that if you don't have a plan right after high school, you're just standing still," he said. "I joined the Army to do something while I make a plan and figure out just what I want to do."
Within weeks of graduating, Thomas was on a plane to go to basic training, and then advanced individual training to become an Apache helicopter systems repairer.
During his advanced individual training, Thomas received news that would change his life forever; his mother called him in the middle of the night to tell him that his brother, Joseph, had been fatally shot.
Although it was a heart-breaking experience to have to go through, Thomas wouldn't allow himself to forget the brother that was always closest to him in age.
The jersey he uses for flag football, the tank top for the boxing tournaments and even his full arm tattoo are adorned with the nickname "Baby J" to remember and honor his lost sibling.
After Completing AIT, Thomas went on to his first tour in Iraq with the 601st Aviation Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.
While with the 1st Infantry Division in Germany, Thomas entered and won a boxing tournament that would crown him the United States Army Europe champion. He'd use this new-found skill later in his career to stay fit and continue his winning ways.
Even after a successful rotation through Iraq, Thomas felt a need to learn something new and make himself more useful as a Soldier. He decided to change jobs and become a medic.
This would be the job that took him to Iraq again as part of a Military Transition Team sliced off the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd BCT, 1st Cav. Div.
While stationed at Forward Operating Base Union III with the transition team, the troops from the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment held a boxing smoker to test the troops and civilians who work in the 2nd Brigade's area of operations.
Thomas jumped at the opportunity to box again. He increased his training and stepped into the ring eventually going undefeated yet again to claim a lightweight crown for the second time in his five-year career.
After punishing his opponents in the ring, Thomas decided to try to take on another challenge that wouldn't depend on muscular strength, endurance or speed. He set his sights on winning the 1-5 Battalion's Soldier-of-the-Month competition.
He and Columbus, Ohio, native, Spc. Brian Schlicher, began studying at break-neck pace to make sure they would have an edge over everyone else in the competition.
"He really went out of his way to expand his knowledge base and took lots of initiative to study," Schlicher said. "There were nights I'd say 'I don't feel like studying,' but he'd keep asking and bugging me to study with him; even after going to the gym or late at night, he'd be reading and going over the study guides."
After Thomas won the monthly competition for his battalion, he found himself vying for battalion-level Soldier of the Quarter, then brigade-level quarterly honor.
"I can't remember too many times when I didn't know the answer," Schlicher said. "[Command] Sergeant Major [James] Daniels from 4-9 Cav., asked me, like, six or seven questions in a row until I finally got one wrong. I think it's just their way of testing your reaction to the question, not necessarily if you get it wrong."
Instead of going straight to the Soldier-of-the-Year board, Thomas went to a promotion board and easily passed. Shortly after winning the Soldier of the Year competition, he was promoted to sergeant.
Thomas admits that winning was great, but he also reflects back on another tour in Iraq and what may come next for his career.
Sometimes he looks back on his time in the military, his early life and his family, Thomas said he can't help but look to the future to find more challenges worthy of his effort.
"I reenlisted and one of my options was to get an additional skill identifier," he said. "At first, I didn't think I'd be in this long, but I plan to make a career out of it."
Soon after redeploying back to America, Thomas said he will be going to school to become an orthopedic specialist making casts and braces in Army hospitals.