Like many of his fellow juniors, Andre Thomas ’06 is going abroad this semester. But instead of preparing for classes at a foreign university, Thomas left Tuesday for the deserts of Iraq.
With five years of full-time service under his belt, the 25-year-old is at least as much Marine as he is Eli. As his classmates continue to debate the merits of the war in Iraq, he will be arming and transporting U.S. troops across a nation beset with insurgency.
“I’m anxious to get there and do what I’m trained to do,” he said. “Having heard so much from other soldiers and seen so much on the news, I just want to get in the thick of it.”
Thomas left Tuesday to report for duty in North Carolina and will head to Iraq in February for a seven-month tour. As a Corporal in the 1st Truck Platoon, 6th Motor Transport Battalion of New Haven, his duties will include maintaining weapons, training troops in their use, and driving transport vehicles. He will also be directly responsible for a number of other soldiers.
Thomas will be stationed in Al-Asad, which he said is a relatively tame region. Danger can flare at any moment in a guerilla war, but Thomas said he believes that with the help of his training and fellow Marines, he is ready. He said he is more uncertain about day to day life, including the weather conditions.
“I won’t be wearing jeans and a T-shirt for about eight months,” he said.
At Yale, Thomas is a Dramat production officer, handling the technical side of the shows. He is also a coxswain for the heavyweight crew team, which he said involves the same kind of discipline and cooperation demanded by the Marines.
“You get a blank slate when you join [the Marines],” he said. “Everything you did in the past is forgiven; you start anew. No matter who you are, you’re part of the brotherhood.”
John Pescatore, Thomas’ head crew coach, said that Thomas’ qualities as a Marine are what make his rowers believe in him.
“The same reasons that he’s going are the same reasons why I’m sad that we’re losing him,” Pescatore said. “He has a great sense of commitment.”
Socially, however, Thomas “shattered” the Marine stereotype, said friend and former roommate Lucas Mills ’05.
“You expect a Marine to be hard-core, aggressive, macho, the bad-ass of the military,” Mills said. “Then you meet T, and you know he has those qualities, but he doesn’t put those forward. He’s a nice guy, a very easygoing person.”
Thomas is a second-semester junior, but he has been a Yalie for nine years. A Miami resident, he enrolled at the age of 16. He studied at Yale for two years, and then took a year off to study theater production, working with professionals in New Haven and Miami. After another semester at Yale, he joined the Marine reserves in 1999.
The Marines are widely considered the toughest soldiers in the U.S. military, a quality that appealed to Thomas, he said.
“The same way that Yale is an elite organization, the Marine Corps is an elite organization,” he said.
Though as a reservist Thomas was required to serve only one weekend a month, he chose to be on active duty for five years. Thomas said he opted to serve full time because he wanted to explore what the Marines had to offer before returning to his life at school and pursuing a career as a doctor.
Though he has spent the past year on a liberal campus where anti-war demonstrations are common, Thomas said he is not bothered by the sentiment and has received a lot of support from friends and family regardless of their political views. The crew team, for example, threw him a going-away party and presented him with an iPod. And his parents, who are against the war, still support Thomas’s giving back to the country which has afforded them so many opportunities. The family moved from the island-nation of Trinidad and Tobago when Thomas was 10.
“There’s a difference between being against the war and being against people in the war,” Thomas said. “It’s the best feeling knowing your friends are there to support you.”
As for his own opinion, Thomas said he focuses on bringing the war to an end rather than dwelling on whether it was right in the first place. Even when the war began, he preferred to reserve judgment rather than take a side.
Thomas said that while his contract with the military compels him to go to Iraq, he would have gone anyway if given the choice. His former anti-tank unit has already been deployed and is suffering casualties, and Thomas feels guilty that he is not there to help. For example, a sergeant who had served on Thomas’ four-man fire team was shot in the neck.
“It’s a tough feeling to know that somebody you care about is out there, and you should be at their side but you’re not,” Thomas said.
He said he does regret having to leave friends and family behind, however. While he is away, his friends will graduate and the crew team with compete without him. He will never see Dramat sets that he designed.
“I think it sucks,” Dramat President Lisa Holme ’05 said. “He realizes he has to be going in, so he’s been acting excited about the whole thing. I don’t understand how he does it.”
Thomas’ major is molecular, cellular and developmental biology in the neurobiology track. He plans to go to medical school when he returns from Iraq, and has yet to decide whether he will renew his military contract.