“I realized that no matter what I say or do, unless you’ve been there, you can’t really understand.”
Bill Thomas III, the productions coordinator for the Sam Houston State University department of theatre and musical theatre, has played many roles on the campus of SHSU. From a student in the 1970s to an engineer management technician at physical plant and lab manager in IT as an adult, Thomas has seen the campus through many different lenses.
However, in 1978 while still attending SHSU as a student, Thomas’ eyes were opened to an entirely new perspective when he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
Despite the bright future which lay before him as a civilian, Thomas followed the footsteps of his grandfather, father and many other family members when he enlisted in the service. Thomas said his decision was made due to his love for a life of adventure.
Thomas admitted he was ill-equipped to serve due to his flat-feet. However, after failing the physical test twice, he was able to use letters of recommendation to persuade the Marine headquarters to let him serve.
As the first in his family to join the Marines, for 15 years and eight months of his life, Thomas served as a staff sergeant where he trained, traveled and transformed his outlook on life.
“They’re the best,” Thomas said. “They are our Spartans of our time. Other services have outstanding servicemen and missions but, why not be a Spartan?”
During his period of service, Thomas went from attending boot camp in San Diego, California where he was referred to as a “Hollywood Marine,” to traveling around the world to as far as Japan. Of all his experiences, however, Thomas recalled serving in Desert Storm as one of the most influential time periods in his life.
“It changes your mind a little bit and you think of your immortality—you come to that realization,” he said. “But you push all that aside because you have your Marines that you’ve got to take care of and you’ve got a mission to accomplish. That changes you a little bit; you care about people differently, and if you lose a person that impacts you more so.”
Thomas said his time with the military instilled in him values which he still uses on a regular basis, such as working as a team, being mission-oriented, staying organized and not only knowing how to lead but also how to follow.
Despite everything Thomas saw while on a deployment or living in bunkers, he agreed that the most difficult of military life is not being in it.
“[The transition from military life to civilian life is] horrible; I’m still a bad civilian,” he said. “We have an all-volunteer force—they’re there because they want to be. Making the transition back to this is not easy, and I don’t know if anyone every really can because you will always be linked to the most powerful thing that occurred in your life and that’s what took place in the military. Whether you saw duty or not, it changes the whole structure of your view of things and people and direction.”
In addition to working with the theatre department, Thomas also serves as the Collegiate Veterans Association’s faculty advisor. The CVA was started as a community service organization by five Marine-turned-students and was later converted into a social organization.
“One thing that we’re committed to is helping guys make that transition,” Thomas said. “If nothing else, it just helps talking to somebody who has experienced what you’ve experienced or who has been around what you’ve been around. It is not an easy thing to talk about a nightmare that you had, or the fact that you don’t sleep, or about the meds that the doctor gave you.”
The CVA participates in tailgates, parades, the Ruck March for wounded warriors and are currently working on Toys for Tots. Thomas said prior to the development of any veteran resources on campus, roughly 800 veterans were either students, faculty or staff members on campus, forming the need for some type of veteran support.
“I would say Sam Houston does well because it is known as a vet-friendly university,” he said. “I personally believe that those five guys who started CVA brought to the university’s attention the need for something just for veterans and that may not be the case, but it came to pass. The Veteran Resource Center is up and running. It provides a lot of information and assistance, and I think that, if nothing else, has exploded in their interaction with those that are veterans of the campus. I don’t know too many institutions that have a resource solely for veterans, so that’s a big plus.”
Although Thomas agreed that there may be some similarities between college life and military life, a lot of it does not coincide, emphasizing the need for organizations like the CVA to exist.
“Class and girls and teachers and papers; we haven’t had to do that,” Thomas said. “There may be some things that are kind of parallel, but college life is completely different than the military. That disconnect is going to increase exponentially because we’re going to have more people getting out, and if less people have a connection with those coming out of the military, it makes it harder.”
Thomas said the biggest piece of advice he could give to young men and women who have recently been discharged from the military is to talk it out.
“Seek out other veterans, because that’s going to be an important thing,” he said. “There’s always going to be someone else that’s been on point before you. That included organizations like the Veteran Resource Center, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion that gives you a wider spectrum of veterans which helps cushion the transition. Specifically, clear your mind and find out what direction you want to go in. Just focus on your goals, your direction and your family.”
Despite everything Thomas has accomplished in his life, and some of the long-term physical repercussions which he has suffered as a result of his service, Thomas said he would do it again.
“Hell yeah, it was the best time of my life,” he said. “I like theatre, I like being creative, and I somewhat like being around young folks, but [being a Marine] is going to be the pinnacle of my life.”
Thomas said he hopes that today and tomorrow’s generation will serve with the same level of patriotism and honor the United States military has had since its inception.
“What would it take for young people, nowadays, to serve?” Thomas said. “I still ask that question, because it can happen any day. If terrorists are focusing discipline, they’re going to bring it home again. I think the appreciation of everything that we have and everything that our Founding Fathers did to create this and just what we take for granted changes if you have to put that uniform on.”