By Paul Wood
RANTOUL — When he heard the shout “incoming!”, Peter Thomas had the training to get out safely from the burst of Russian rockets fired by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars.
The retired Army 101st and 82nd Airborne veteran is the longtime director of Lincoln’s Challenge Academy.
Obviously, he’s a survivor — four years in Vietnam.
And he’s no quitter, either, with more than 20 years at the Illinois National Guard’s Lincoln’s Challenge Academy — graduating students with “a map for the future.”
In 30 years in the Army, he served as everything from a paratrooper to infantry to mortuary to recruiter.
He served in the Dominican Republic when U.S. military occupation ended a civil war in the mid-1960s.
Thomas, who grew up in South Carolina, was drafted in 1963 and first stationed at Fort Wainwright in Alaska.
After that posting, he signed up for airborne training at Fort Benning, Ga.
“I always had a desire to push myself to my limits,” he said.
He served in the 101st and 82nd Airborne from 1965 to 1990.
That included jumping with a 3.5-inch rocket launcher that was assembled like a bazooka, he said, that was detached safely during the drop.
In 1968, he went to Vietnam with an optimistic attitude.
“I thought we were going to end it,” he said.
The war would drag on another seven years.
In the intense months following the Tet offensive, Thomas served as a combat infantryman and, after three years, volunteered for one more.
“We saw a lot of action in and near Chu Lai,” a military airport, and on Route 1, the main north-south highway in Vietnam.
“We took a lot of fire, and fired back,” he said.
In the citadel city Hue, there was street fighting from one building to another.
The word he didn’t want to hear was “incoming,” though he praised careful preparation for getting soldiers into bunkers and foxholes.
“We already rehearsed for the attacks,” he said. “You had 10 or 15 seconds.”
Still, he lost several close buddies.
Thomas was attached to mortuary service for a while. He even considered opening a funeral home after his service was up.
But he volunteered to go back to the jungle for another year.
“They needed my experience in the field,” Thomas said.
Toward the end of his military career, he “had no choice but to become a recruiter,” then a drill sergeant.
Thomas said he loves work at Lincoln’s Challenge.
He said the Rantoul experience usually builds character, whether it’s a five-mile run or a mentor who changes a viewpoint.
Students work as volunteers all over the area. In fact, you may have seen them parking cars at Ebertfest.
The 17-month program involves five months on site and another year “under the watchful eyes of a mentor.”
“We’ve had some graduates who have become teachers, engineers, executives,” Thomas said. “It’s a life-changing experience.”
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.