When Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas left the military, she faced a challenge unlike any other—perhaps one more difficult than the service itself.
As a first lieutenant and series commander in the United States Marine Corps, Thomas was a leader. Her independent spirit helped her thrive mentally and physically. But in the years after she left the military, she struggled to find balance re-entering the civilian population.
“I had a really tough time walking away,” she said. “It was a debacle for me. I was so wrapped up in my identity as an officer of the Marines, and I really struggled with becoming just a normal girl again. ...You kind of drink the ‘Kool-Aid.’ It becomes as much a lifestyle...as your friend group.”
Thomas credits time spent with non-military friends as a pivotal factor in aiding her slow transition from life in Iraq to life again in American culture. At the time she cared for her brother daily at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Also a Marine, he had been wounded overseas.
Thomas said she'll never forget the "juxtaposition" of those long days among wounded patients and the more carefree nights she spent "with normal people that go to malls and eat dinner."
Because of her past internal battle, Thomas now primarily focuses her work in the public health field on reintegrating veterans and maximizing opportunities for them.
“How can we make the process of becoming a civilian after service easier for people?” she said.
Thomas explained how her past informs her current research and publications—her first book “Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance” released in 2015. It “calls for a radical shift” in how society deliberates on service members’ health. Her second publication, “Bulletproofing the Psyche,” is due out next year.
“I’m incredibly passionate about veterans’ health,” Thomas said. “I think we often talk about how vets have all of these problems, (but) they are some of the most resilient members of our community.”
Her heart especially goes out to the vets who comprise 10 percent of the student population at Charleston Southern University, where she’s employed as the public health program director and an assistant professor for the College of Health Sciences.
“I have a special relationship with them because they tend to have similar experiences, and they’re older,” Thomas said, “and they’re sitting next to the 18- and 19-year-old playing on the cell phone going, ‘In what alternate universe have I landed?’ and so I kind of consider it my job to help them make it through their academic training.”
Thomas has been employed at CSU since 2014.
Obeying the ‘11th commandment’
From a young age Thomas had no doubt the military was her future. She signed up for the service in 2002 at age 18 and attended the University of Virginia on a Marine Corps scholarship.
“I liked to joke that the 11th commandment in my family was ‘Thou shalt join the Marine Corps,’” she said.
In addition to her brother’s service, her dad served as a career infantry officer for the branch.
“It’s kind of what we did," Thomas said. "I drive onto a Marine Corps base today and I see bad architecture and short haircuts, and I feel, ‘Ahh, right at home.'"
Over the course of her service, she experienced the hardships of a rigorous work schedule, non-stop training, an overseas deployment and survival in a male-dominated world. Women comprise just 4 percent of the branch's officer corps.
“I knew what I was walking into in some ways—not every way,” Thomas said.
It was an environment quite different from the college days when she pursued an undergraduate degree in studies in women and gender.
“It was feminist theory, and everybody said, ‘What are you going to do with that degree?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to join the Marine Corps,’” Thomas said with a laugh.
She was partially prepared for what lay ahead but constantly found herself needing to prove herself among her male counterparts.
“You walk into any room, and you need to be able to prove yourself,” Thomas said. “You just hold yourself to a really high standard and don’t think about it. Looking back I realized that there were a lot of things—there were plenty of things—that you shouldn’t have had to deal with, but you join...knowing you’re going to be a minority...knowing it’s a very physical organization and you need to be able to push yourself in those ways, so it’s almost like you’re already the kind of person who enjoys taking on those crazy, weird challenges.”
Thomas said she maintained her “youthful invincibility” until age 25. And she remembers the moment that quality faded. It was the day her brother joined the overseas fight. It was 2005, and Thomas had been stationed in Fallujah, Iraq with the 2nd Military Police Battalion.
Her brother had flown into the country the same night she said she had convoyed down south for an opportunity to see him. The encounter proved raw and real.
“I remembered him getting off his aircraft and walking towards me with his gear on and his rifle slung over his shoulder,” Thomas said. “And your little brother always looks like a little kid to you, and in that moment my youthful invincibility kind of fell away, and I went, ‘Ahh’...my heart sunk.”
She knew he was heading to a heavy area of fighting and feared for his life.
“In that moment, I thought, ‘All I can see are these big, blue eyes. Who let a 10-year-old on this plane?’ And I’m kind of getting mad,” Thomas said. “That is my keenest memory of being Iraq.”
Though she did lose friends during deployment, she considered herself “incredibly lucky” to have experienced minimal peril during her seven months in the Middle East.
“The worst I saw while we were out running convoys was a controlled IED detonation, so we found one and we blew it up in place,” she said.
The return home
When Thomas returned to the States, her brother did, too — except he returned on a medevac flight. She said she still regrets being in Kuwait, somewhat close to him in Baghdad, and not going to see him. But she knew nothing of his injury at the time.
“I could have gotten to him,” Thomas said. “I used to think about him all by himself in these field hospitals and me just...a helicopter flight ride away, and I wasn’t there. But today he is a dad of two and a high school English teacher.”
After using her post-deployment leave with her brother in Maryland, Thomas headed to her next active duty post in California before taking on a training role at Parris Island, South Carolina. During her two years there, she worked at the Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot.
Though she had always planned to serve just four years in the Corps, her brother’s injury and time overseas changed her mind, fueling her to stay on a bit longer.
“I sort of felt like, ‘We’re at war; I can’t leave the service right now,'" Thomas said.
She eventually evaluated her future and the career path she wanted to pursue beyond the military and enrolled in graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C. While there she studied preventive wellness under the interdisciplinary health promotion management program.
“This notion that you can help somebody when they’ve already broken their arm or...put a net around the trampoline so they don’t break the arm,” Thomas said.
After obtaining her master’s, she worked for the Marine Corps Office of Legislative Affairs and also the Department of Defense, conducting skills training and adult education for military personnel and their families. Her interest in politics and the possibly of a “celebrity sighting”—spotting a senator—made every day exciting, Thomas said.
Though she loved teaching adults, she never envisioned herself as a college professor, until American University contacted her with an emergency teaching need. After conducting her first seminar, Thomas fell in love.
“I thought, ‘This is teaching college. This is what I want to do,’” she said.
In the meantime Thomas had transitioned from active duty to reserves—another hard decision.
“I was taking this different path. ...It was kind of time to choose,” Thomas said.
And she didn't stop climbing the educational ladder—her internal drive sending her to the University of Alabama for a doctorate. She said she found herself in a new, strange world and wasn't sure she could handle the Deep South, almost quitting the program to accept a military job. But things changed when she met Shane, a spec ops vet with the Army. The couple later married and now have a 3-year-old son, Matthew.
Despite the obstacles it produced and dreaded days of backpacking it often required in the cold and rain, the Marine Corps lifestyle has yet to become one Thomas regrets. She said she “loved” the service and learned greatly from it, teaching her leadership and work ethic above all.
“I laugh now, that there’s really no day that I can have that can feel hard,” she said.