Jason Thomas can be seen often patrolling the streets of Jefferson City as a traffic officer with the city's police force. It is a career, he explained, that has provided him the opportunity to continue protecting others — an aspiration he said first came to fruition while serving as a squad leader in the U.S. Marine Corps.
A 1993 graduate of Jefferson City High School, Thomas said though he went on to attend Lincoln University for a brief period, he decided to enlist in the military because of the inspiration provided by previous generations of his family.
"My father served in the Marine Corps, as did my uncle and grandfather," he said. "It just seemed like it was something that was in our family's blood to do."
The recruit first traveled to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina, in October 1995 to undergo several weeks of initial training followed by additional weeks of Marine Combat Training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. From there, he transferred to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland to attend a school in welding and metalworking.
"After all of my training was complete," Thomas recalled, "I received my first duty assignment with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) Battalion at Twentynine Palms (California). While I was with them, I deployed to Okinawa in March 1997."
While stationed in Okinawa as a welding chief, his daily duties included helping oversee mechanics and welders who maintained equipment including light armored vehicles and amphibious assault vehicles. Additionally, Thomas said, he participated in regular maneuvers and field exercises.
When his tour in Okinawa ended in September 1997, he returned with his battalion to Twentynine Palms and received a meritorious promotion to corporal two months later. The following year, he was recognized as "Marine of the Year" for the battalion and was part of the team that presented the colors for Super Bowl XXXII.
"I received a promotion to sergeant in July 1998 and remained with the 3rd LAR until my enlisted commitment came to an end in October 1999," he recalled. "I was married the previous year, and my wife and I had our first child by the time I left the service. Also, the Marines had me slotted to be a drill instructor on the East Coast, so we just knew it was time for a change."
He remained in California for a year or so after his discharge to work as a warehouse manager but returned to Mid-Missouri in spring 2001, because he and his wife believed it to be a better location to raise their family, which had grown in size to two children.
Months later, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 united the nation; and Thomas, who was still in an inactive ready reserve status with the Marines, watched as many of his friends were called back to active duty in support of the war.
"I wanted to go, but the call never came," he said. "So I reenlisted with the Marine Corps Reserve unit in Springfield (Missouri) in January 2003, and they sent me to infantry school. Then, our unit got the call to deploy and we were sent to the Al Anbar Province in Iraq in January 2004."
While overseas, he served as a squad leader, participating in more than 100 combat missions consisting primarily of foot patrols to locate enemy combatants and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
"I remember April 10, 2004, quite well," he said. "We were operating in vehicles and got hit by IEDs, followed by an attack from insurgents on both sides of the road. We deployed from the vehicles, called in air and fire support and destroyed the enemy."
Following his return from Iraq in October 2004, Thomas was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat Valor for battles in the spring of 2004. He remained with his reserve unit until his term of service expired in January 2005. The veteran chose to concentrate on spending more time with his family, which had now grown to three children, in addition to pursuing a new career.
Once back in Jefferson City, he began working for a local company that built road culverts while using his G.I. Bill benefits to attend the sheriff's academy, remaining focused on his goal of becoming a law enforcement officer. In 2006, he was hired as a patrol officer with the Jefferson City Police Department.
In recent years, Thomas has served as a traffic and motorcycle officer and is a member of the executive board of the Jefferson City Fraternal Order of Police. His career choices, he further explained, have been an extension of his desire to serve others throughout the years.
"When I first got into law enforcement, it really wasn't much of a shock because the Marines had prepared me to face stress and difficulties," he said. "I knew what to expect with the odd hours, lack of sleep and being away from home for extended periods."
"But I have never regretted any part of my career choices; I just wanted to keep serving protecting others," Thomas said. "It's a job that I wanted to do — for which I was suited — and years from now I'll be able to look back and know that I didn't waste my life."
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.