Mayor Jim Thomas has made frequent lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Hinesville-Fort Stewart community. During his most recent trip, however, the trip became personal when he ran into nearly 80 former Special Forces soldiers, many of whom served with Thomas in Vietnam.
Thomas said there currently are 79 living Medal of Honor winners in the country and that many of them served in Special Forces during the Vietnam era. While in Washington on business, he overheard a large group of men who also were in Washington on business — the business of celebrating one of their own who had finally been recognized for his heroic actions nearly 50 years ago.
“Normally, when I go to Washington, I stay at the hotel Marriott, so… we can just walk over to the Pentagon,” Thomas said. “This year, we went to the hotel Sheridan, which is not that much further from the Pentagon. I came in and I heard a bunch of older men talking, and they were mentioning a bunch of things about Vietnam. It caught my attention.
“I saw this guy standing there. You remember guys as youthful. It was a guy named Drew Dix. He was a Special Forces soldier who got awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at one of the A Camps — I can’t remember which. I went over there and started talking with him and a couple of other guys. They said they were there for a ceremony because the president had presented the Medal of Honor to retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins,” the mayor said.
“Many of these guys were guys I had worked with in Special Forces. I went into Special Forces in 1963. Many of these guys were guys I grew up working under and working with. … Once I started talking with them, some more of them came up and started talking with me. My first A Camp was in a place called Tuyen Nhon in the Mekong Delta. ... I really enjoyed talking with them. It was one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me. (It) brought back a lot of memories.”
Thomas paused to review his military career, which he said began with the Marine Corps in 1957. He said he left the Corps in 1960 to attend Florida A&T University, and then he went back in the military, only this time, he chose the Army. Thomas said he went to airborne school and was assigned to Okinawa with the unit that later became the famous 173rd Airborne Brigade. While there, he volunteered for Special Forces training, eventually becoming proficient in two foreign languages and an expert in both light and heavy weapons.
After completing his Special Forces training, he was assigned with the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C. In 1965, his career took another turn as he went to Officer Candidate School as a staff sergeant. After serving as a company executive officer, and then a company commander at training school, he returned to Fort Bragg, this time with the 5th Special Forces Group. Soon after that, he deployed to Vietnam. He later served another tour in Vietnam as commander of a Ranger group. Thomas has both Special Forces and Ranger qualification tabs. He retired from the Army as a major in 1980 with a total of 23½ years’ service.
Through it all, he credits his wife Claudia for supporting and “putting up with him.” The Thomases soon will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. He called Special Forces wives “the glue” that holds the Special Forces groups together.
Thomas, who also later had a successful with civil-service career, said one of the hardest things he had to get used to when he became mayor was getting his picture taken. He said Special Forces soldiers don’t even sit for the semi-annual Department of the Army photo because they have to be careful. He said the enemy will try to get every piece of information they can about Special Forces soldiers, whom he called unique because of their total trust and reliance on each other.
“The relationships you have with these guys is closer than you have with a brother,” he said. “You have to depend on each other because there are only 12 of you. Sometimes you’re on a mission where there’re only two or three of you and you’re staying in a place for two or three weeks. The closeness has to be real. You have to trust him with your life.”
Thomas said the men he served with in Special Forces were some of the best guys he’ll ever know. He said he invited a couple of them to visit Hinesville and Fort Stewart. At least one said he was going to take the mayor up on his offer. Thomas said he wishes he had had more time to sit down and talk with his old friends, but he’s grateful for the chance run-in and the opportunity to revive old memories.