Back to school for Iraq vet

Sitting across the table in Au Bon Pain, dressed in a green polo shirt and jeans, Andre Thomas ’06 looks pretty much like any other college student. But after a few minutes of flipping through the pages of the photo album documenting his past seven months in Iraq, it is clear that there are few Yalies like Thomas.

Thomas returned from Iraq on Sept. 16 and launched right into a full roster of classes. He first enrolled at Yale when he was just 16 years old, but that was 10 years ago. After spending two years in New Haven, Thomas left to study theater production before returning to complete another semester at Yale. In 1999, he joined the Marine Reserves and served on active duty for five years before completing another semester of college in 2004.

Now back at Yale for the fourth time, Thomas said he has acclimated himself without too much difficulty, choosing to focus on his schoolwork. But he said the change in surroundings took some getting used to.

“For the first of days, I was walking around going, ‘Grass … trees … rain … cold,’” he said.

As the sergeant of Transportation Support Company Combat Logistics Battalion-2, Thomas was in charge of weapon training for all of the marines in his unit. He said he is still trying to make sense of the experience of fighting in Iraq.

“It forces you to redefine who you are,” he said. “There were lots of seminal events — every time someone was hurt or killed.”

Stationed in Al-Asad for most of his stint in Iraq, Thomas said he and his fellow soldiers often were combating mine fields or suicide bombers rather than engaging in actual combat. Still, Thomas said his battalion suffered losses.

Day to day living was not easy for the surviving soldiers either, he said. Temperatures in the deserts hovered above 100 degrees and even reached 145 degrees at one point.

“We would get back at the end of the day and take off our uniforms and there would be white powder on our bodies,” Thomas said. “It was salt that had dried from our sweat. It was almost funny.”

Corporal John Darling, a student at Southern Connecticut State University, became extremely close with Thomas during their time together in Iraq. Darling said Thomas is a natural leader.

“He’s very intelligent,” Darling said. “He has good people skills in dealing with the people under him. He’s not full of authority or buddy-buddy.”

Darling, who also served in Iraq for seven months, said he has seen Thomas — who he called a “brother” — every day since they returned from the war.

Despite the grimness of their job, Thomas said the soldiers were able to maintain a sense of humor.

“It was a running joke that people would say, ‘Damn, we should have voted have for Kerry,’” he said.

When he was called to serve in Iraq, Thomas said he was not necessarily in favor of the war. But despite the predominantly liberal atmosphere on campus, Thomas said almost everyone he has talked to about his experience has been supportive of his efforts.

“Most people were more concerned about me and my well-being than anything else,” he said. “For many, I was the first person they knew going to fight and I think it made them analyze their positions on the war.”

Bobby Kolba ’06, one of Thomas’ friends at Yale, said he supports his friend, but not the war in Iraq.

“Andre is my third friend to go to the war, so I was already paying pretty close attention,” Kolba wrote in an e-mail. “I have never been a fan of our actions in Iraq and Andre going merely reinforced these feelings.”

While he was in Iraq, Thomas said he was able to talk to his family fairly regularly. Though he said his family was extremely worried about his safety, they became even more “fiercely democratic” when he was called for service. In an effort to quell their nerves, Thomas said he would often leave out the most dramatic details of his life fighting a war.

“I didn’t tell them a lot about what was going on,” he said. “In their eyes, I was shuffling papers all day.”

Kolba, who talked to Thomas a couple of times a month when he was in Iraq, said the two did not talk about the actual war very often.

“We would mainly talk about how things were going with the Dramat and at home and with his new computer,” Kolba said. “I suppose the take-home point is we very rarely talked about the war. Our conversations about Iraq largely involved heat, sandstorms, and camel spiders.”

A molecular, cellular and developmental biology major, Thomas was the coxswain for the heavyweight crew team before he left for Iraq. Though he said he hopes to go to medical school at some point in the future, he wants to take some time off first to relax and travel.

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