48 Years In Uniform
by U.S. Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Adam Keele
When Craig Thomas enlisted as an Aerial Port Squadron Technician
in the U.S. Air Force in December 1971, he never imagined he would
become a doctor, let alone that he would go on to serve for over 48
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Thomas.
as quietly as Thomas enlisted, he retired on April 17, 2020 without fanfare
and a grand ceremony due to the rise of COVID-19 across the USA. Col. Thomas was commander of the Alaska Air National Guard 168th Medical Group
and a chief flight surgeon.
Col. Craig R. Thomas, 168th Medical Group commander, 168th Wing, Alaska Air National Guard, retired
on April 17, 2020 after over 48 years in uniform, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Adam Keele)
Before assuming command of the medical
group, Thomas was the State Air Surgeon for Alaska at Joint Forces
Headquarters Alaska, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. In his
civilian career, Thomas is an anesthesiologist with a private
practice in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Shortly after arriving at his
first duty assignment at Norton Air Force Base, San Bernardino,
California, in 1972, he was told he would be sent to Vietnam for 179
days. Roughly three weeks later, he was then notified those orders
were being changed to Clark Air Force Base, Philippines.
after, he was informed his orders to Clark were canceled for a
permanent change of station to Yokota Air Base, Japan. Ultimately,
Japan wouldn’t happen either, and while at Norton AFB, he would
obtain a congressional appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in
Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Prior to leaving for his
appointment at the Air Force Academy in July 1973, Thomas took part
in Operation Homecoming at Norton AFB, which returned 591 POWs from
the Vietnam War.
During his time at the Air Force Academy, he
witnessed a historical milestone in June 1976 with the admittance of
women to the academy for the first time.
After graduating and
commissioning as a 2nd Lt. from the academy in June 1977, he went on
to become a Communications-Electronics officer for the 679th Radar
Squadron at a now decommissioned radar site at Naval Air Station
Jacksonville, Florida, which he oversaw its decommissioning in
Then it was on to Bergstrom AFB in Austin,
Texas, with the 602nd Tactical Air Control Center, there he felt a
calling to study medicine.
Turning down a unique assignment
to oversee a major overhaul of the military communications systems
for South Korea, it was the turning point he chose to leave a
promising career in communications to pursue an even more difficult
path: medical school.
Thomas says his time at the Air Force
Academy helped him be prepared for medical school rigors and
balancing his new military career as a communications officer in the
Air Force Reserve.
Upon graduation from medical school at the
University of North Texas in 1990, Thomas reentered Air Force active
duty, accomplishing his residency at Carswell AFB in Fort Worth,
Texas. His first assignment as a primary care doctor was at
Malmstrom AFB, Montana. At Malmstrom, he would become a flight
surgeon and return to the Reserves to pursue a career as an
anesthesiologist in the civilian sector.
After finding his
way to Alaska in 1997 for his civilian practice as an
anesthesiologist, he formed a relationship with the Alaska Air
National Guard while still serving as a reservist. Once a medical
position opened in 2005, Thomas joined the Air National Guard as
Chief of Aerospace Medicine at the 168th Medical Group, Eielson AFB,
When he accepted the position as State Air Surgeon of
Alaska, Joint Forces Headquarters, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson,
he thought it would be his last unless he continued up the medical
ladder outside of Alaska, which he didn’t want to do since it would
likely require him to give up being a practicing physician and
direct patient care.
Choosing to practice medicine and have
direct contact with patients allowed Thomas to finish his career as
commander of the 168th Medical Group from December 2014 until his
retirement on April 19, 2020, after continually wearing an Air Force
uniform for over 48 years.
Col. Richard Adams, 168th Wing
commander, said, “It has been a pleasure to serve alongside Col.
Thomas in the 168th Wing. Doc Thomas’ distinguished career of almost
half a century has had many chapters, and the Guardians of the Last
Frontier are grateful to have been a part of that epic journey.”
Thomas said his most memorable moments during his 48 years in
uniform were “events where I was involved with a group, and we were
accomplishing an objective or a goal or mission of training or
deployment.” From a physician’s perspective, he said, “I’m most
gratified from my participation in humanitarian missions.”
highlight of his humanitarian service was in Timor-Leste, a
Southeast Asia island nation between Indonesia and Australia, where
he provided medical care to underprivileged islanders.
has seen five different uniforms changes for the Air Force during
his career and has served under nine presidents. Thomas has worn the
rank of colonel for almost 19 years. He has more than 1,715 flight
hours, including more than 150 combat hours from his deployment to
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