‘It’s a chance to thank all of those who came before me’

U.S. Air Force veteran and Auburn resident reflects on her service.

When Deb Thomas joined the U.S. Air Force in 1982 at age 25, the ratio of men to women in the military was four women to every 96 men.

Today, it is 17 women to every 83 men.

And the Auburn woman, now 67, would play her own part in changing those numbers and straightening stubborn minds during her 21-year-long career, and beyond.

To do that, Thomas first had to change herself from the “mousy little person” she described herself to be when she walked into the recruiting office in 1981, to the tough, technical sergeant she’d become by 2003, the year she retired.

It was not easy, and she marks her progress with multiple inflection points.

She peppers her talk with many a “from that point on,” and “that was the moment I decided,” common to persons who’ve overcome adversity. If it meant backing against a wall some big slab who’d been harassing her, or refusing to give in to an all-pervasive, patronizing male culture, or fending off a stalker — she became adept at wresting respect from stubborn hands, and helping other women todo the same.

“I learned to stand up for myself from the day I walked in to that office to when I was talking like I was a New Yorker who owned the streets,” said the 4’11” Thomas. “My attitude became, ‘I don’t care what you think about me. Unless you’re my boss, and you’re writing your end-of-quarter report, I don’t care. We’re a team. I’m here, I’m going to do my job, and I am always going to support you, and are you always going to support me.’”

Today, Thomas is senior vice president of VFW Post 1741 in Auburn, a posting filled with veterans she loves and admires. She calls the office a perfect fit for her because it allows her to do what is most meaningful and important to her: advancing military care for women in active service and care for female veterans.

It’s no secret that women in the services still face hardships.

“Oh, yeah, oh yeah,” said Thomas, warming to the subject. “The military, regardless of the branch, is just a microcosm of American society. Women are still facing sexual trauma, they are still facing comments like, ‘too bad you’re a woman.’”

“My concern as senior vice president of VFW Post 1741 is, how do we take care of women who have trauma and are not receiving the care they need, or the quality of care they are entitled to from the Veterans Administration? For instance, the VA engages counselors to work with women who have experienced sexual trauma. My concern is that there be enough counselors who understand what that means. I hear often from women about the rapid turnover of the counselors they’d been working with for more than a year who’d understood them, but now they’ll have to start with a new one. Women are veterans too,” she said.

Thomas credits whho she is today first of all to her dysfunctional family, which saw her grow up under conditions that demanded that she defend not only herself, but her sister, too. Their mother died when Thomas was only 7 years old.

“My father was in the Air Force, and we were military brats. By the time I was 16, we’d lived in four different countries in Europe,” she said.

Her exposure to the languages spoken in those countries would set her upon the first step of her military career. She returned to the United States in her senior year.

“When I took the ASVAB test — measures language aptitude — when they looked at it, I thought it was going to be really bad, but they said, ‘This is really good. We’re a going to give you choice of language: Mandarin Chinese or Russian.’ I chose Russian,” she said.

So Thomas attended Russian language school, which starts out with 47 weeks of intense study. She ended up under headphones monitoring the chatter of Russian fighter pilots.

“It was only later that I realized that what my dad had done in the military was what I was doing, which he couldn’t talk about back then. By the first grade I could write my name in Cyrillic,” she said.

Unfortunately for Thomas, a non-malignant tumor disrupted her language plans as the surgery to repair what was ailing her cost her some of her hearing, so she had to move on.

“I was absolutely crushed,” Thomas said. “It was my dream job.”

The military then reassigned her to process the reconnaissance film in cameras attached to SR-71 fighter planes. She learned how to develop film, working first at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. In 1990, the Air Force phased out the SR 71 because by then, satellites could do all it had done.

So, onto another reassignment.

“There’s a unit called the Air Force Office of Special Investigations that is the military version of the FBI. I applied and was accepted, so I worked from 1990 to 2003 as a special agent doing counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism. I loved it. It was a blast,” Thomas recalled.

From 1998 to 2001, Thomas was a part of a rapid deployment unit called the 820th Special Forces Group.

Thomas retired to Washington state in 2003 with her husband, Gil Gomez. The couple bought a house first in DuPont before moving to their current home in Auburn.

“I don’t know what I’ll be doing for Memorial Day this year, but it’s a chance to thank all of those who came before me,” Thomas said. “On my mother’s side, we go back to the Civil War on the Union side. On the Thomas side, some of my relatives helped run part of the Underground Railroad.”

Photo courtesy Deb Thomas
Deb Thomas in her dress blues in an official photo.

Photo courtesy Deb Thomas Deb Thomas in her dress blues in an official photo.