Hero’s welcome for a wounded warrior

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Members of the Martha's Vineyard DAR wait for Sargent Gerard Thomas and Antonya Thomas on the Oak Bluffs ferry pier on Friday. - Stacey Rupolo

Last Friday was bright and sunny on the Island, and a very good day for U.S. Army Master Sergeant Gerard Thomas. The wounded warrior and his wife, Antonya Thomas, drove off the Steamship Authority ferry from Woods Hole onto the Oak Bluffs dock at 12:45 in the afternoon as Oak Bluffs Fire Department equipment tooted and whistled and a crowd of several dozen Island vets and service personnel cheered and waved.

While Sgt. Thomas was prepared for a weeklong vacation on-Island, courtesy of Doris Clark and the Daughters of the American Revolution and a host of Island businesses, he was not expecting the warm welcome, which quickly expanded to include ferrygoers who joined in the applause.

“No, not at all. This is unbelievable, a complete surprise,” Sgt. Thomas said as Antonya, standing beside him, wiped at joyous tears. As the Army vet stood in the sunlight on the wooden dock, more than a dozen vets, some young, some not so young, saluted him, thanked him for his service, then hugged him.

Sgt. Thomas, 45, is in active service with the Warrior Transition Command (WTC), a unit serving wounded vets at the Fort Bragg Army base near Fayetteville, N.C. The Gary, Ind., native has 25 years and eight months of active Army service.

He has completed two tours of combat medic duty in Iraq, one in 2004–05 and a second in 2009–10, serving with several storied units including the 82nd Airborne Division and the 252nd Armor Regiment. During his first tour in Iraq, Sgt. Thomas was wounded..

“From an IED [improvised explosive device]. I was wounded in the back and neck,” the soft-spoken combat veteran said. After his second tour, he was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and brain injury.

He has been deployed for the past six years with the WTC at Fort Bragg, and interacts with other wounded warriors making the transition from the battlefield. Sgt. Thomas is fit, of medium height, and looks you in the eye when he speaks. He shows up as an authentic, thoughtful man who has come to terms with life — helpful traits, no doubt, in his work. “Some days are good, some are not so good. You keep going forward. Today? Well, today is one of the really good days,” the father of two and grandfather of two said with a smile on Friday.

The day was also a snapshot of our capability for kindness and gratitude, and a testament to an American culture that has grown more compassionate over time. Paul Schultz, an Island fishing legend, watched quietly on the dock, just behind the crowd of well-wishers.

Mr. Schultz is known to be verbose on fishing matters but not on much else. He is a Vietnam vet who was reminded by a reporter of the difference in this veteran’s reception from that received by returning vets from his war in the 1960s and 1970s, who were often reviled on their return.

“Yeah, this is better. Way better,” he said.

Mr. Schultz, as he did last year with Army Master Sgt. Charles Davis and his wife Lori, took Sgt. Thomas fishing on Chappaquiddick this week. “We got Sgt. Davis a nice albie [false albacore]. We’ll see what we can do this year,” he said.

And Bridget Tobin, the Steamship Authority’s master sergeant on the Island, showed up to personally direct disembarkation of the noon ferry from Woods Hole, ensuring that the Thomases found a space to park and greet their welcoming committee. “I’m grateful. It’s an honor for me,” she said. JoAnn Murphy, the Island’s veteran’s agent, stood quietly among the welcomers. She beamed.

The Thomases’ visit is the second wounded warrior vacation, and enthusiasm for the program seems to be growing organically, as Ms. Clark indicated with a list of donations to the Thomases’ vacation this week.

“This year, they are staying in a small apartment that I have. Hellie Neuman and I are going to trade off lodging every other year so we can keep the program going. The Vineyard community came out in full force to donate items. Atria, Black Dog … Joann Maxwell donated two dinners at Chesca’s, Barn, Bowl and Bistro donated lunch and bowling, Erin Bayer Santos donated two VIP tickets to the Martha’s Vineyard Craft Beer Festival, Jackie Korel at Katama Store donated a huge gift bag from the store, Kathleen Crawley donated chocolates, Susan Bennett donated a tour of the Island, Paul Schultz donated a fishing trip, Pat O’Leary at The Trustees of Reservations donated a Cape Pogue Lighthouse tour, and Carol and Jerry Murphy donated a bottle of wine and a $25 gift card.

“Our members also donated several items, i.e., a gift certificate from Wolf’s Den Pizza, gift certificates to the Secret Garden, Net Result, and Espresso Love, two dinners at the Grill on Main, and a Texaco gas card, among other things,” she said in an email.

Ms. Clark said she got the idea several years ago when a military friend asked her to accompany her for a similar vacation on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. “Being a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, I thought it would fit perfectly in what the DAR is all about: patriotism, history, and education. So when I got back, I brought the idea to the next meeting, and we started putting it all together,” she explained. The week has been a mix of experiences, Sgt. Thomas reported on Tuesday.

“I snagged a couple of fish on Monday with Paul, but they snapped the line. We’re going out again on Wednesday. This has been a wonderful experience, the sense of belonging you get from people here. I wish every soldier could experience this,” he said.

Friday was a good day for Gerard and Antonya Thomas, and it was also a good day for everyone on the Steamship Authority dock in Oak Bluffs.