As we become more seasoned, mature or just plain old, we may look back on our lives and examine where we are and how we got here. Things, events, places and people may now take on a different perspective, offering a revelation of their profound affects on our lives.
One soldier had a profound affect not just on my life, but also on that of my wife and our children.
On this Memorial Day, I want to tell you about that one soldier.
He was Col. Jack Thomas, a resident of Lansing until he died Dec. 25, 2019.
I encountered Jack, known to me as “sir,” in 1966-67 when I was a senior at West Point.
Back then, the curriculum was heavy in math, engineering and science. Those courses were not my friends.
My strong suits were English and history. Cadets were allowed very few electives. I took mine in military history.
Lt. Col. Thomas was my instructor, and I did well in his classes.
When I turned in my final exam for my last military history course before graduation, Thomas took me aside – an action that strikes fear into the hearts of cadets.
He allayed my fear when he asked whether I would be interested in one day returning to the academy as an instructor. I had never considered that, but my immediate response was “Yes, sir.”
I heard no more until 1970-71 when I was in Vietnam. I got a letter from West Point offering me a military history instructor position. I was elated. This meant that in 1974, I would go to graduate school at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and then teach for three years at the academy.
During my 26 years of active duty, our family moved many times, including to West Point and later Fort Leavenworth for military history teaching assignments. No matter where we traveled, we took the kids to historic sites, usually battlefields. At one point, our oldest daughter asked her mother, “Why couldn’t dad have majored in math?”
While teaching at Fort Leavenworth, I was able to earn another degree which led to writing several books on military history after retirement from active duty.
I also got an all-expense-paid trip to Afghanistan as a contract historian and then to Korea in the same capacity. Both trips were to conduct research for the Army on historical topics.
How was I blessed enough to get opportunities like these? How did my wife and our kids get to spend many wonderful hours at battlefields and historic sites? How, after the Army, did I end up doing what I love – doing history?
Yogi Berra said “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” It was Jack Thomas who led me to the fork that changed our lives.
I don’t know where the other fork would have led us, but I do know where the one I took led us – all because one soldier, a Korean War and Vietnam War veteran, saw something in me.
One soldier took the time to talk with me and to recommend me for a faculty position.
When we moved to Leavenworth, I learned that Jack lived in Lansing. We met and I tried to express my gratitude for how positively he had affected the lives of the six people in our family.
At his funeral, I used my handkerchief liberally, grateful for one soldier who made a difference.
Rich Kiper is a Leavenworth Times columnist.