By Tech. Sgt. William A Keele, 168th Wing
/ Published November 16, 2020
FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- When Craig Thomas enlisted as an aerial port squadron technician in the U.S. Air Force in December 1971, he never imagined he would become a doctor, let alone that he would go on to serve for over 48 years.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Thomas.
Just as quietly as Thomas enlisted, he retired in April without fanfare and a grand ceremony due to the rise of COVID-19 across the U.S.
After more than 48 years in uniform, on April 17, 2020, Col. Craig R. Thomas retired from the 168th Wing in the Alaska Air National Guard. Col. Thomas was commander of the 168th Medical Group and a chief flight surgeon. Before assuming command of the medical group, Thomas was the State Air Surgeon for Alaska at Joint Forces Headquarters Alaska, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. In his civilian career, Thomas is an anesthesiologist with a private practice in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Shortly after arriving at his first duty assignment at Norton Air Force Base, San Bernardino, California, in 1972, he was told he would be sent to Vietnam for 179 days. Roughly three weeks later, he was then notified those orders were being changed to Clark Air Force Base, Philippines. Not long after, he was informed his orders to Clark were canceled for a permanent change of station to Yokota Air Base, Japan. Ultimately, Japan wouldn’t happen either, and while at Norton AFB, he would obtain a congressional appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Prior to leaving for his appointment at the Air Force Academy in July 1973, Thomas took part in Operation Homecoming at Norton AFB, which returned 591 POWs from the Vietnam War.
During his time at the Air Force Academy, he witnessed a historical milestone in June 1976 with the admittance of women to the academy for the first time.
After graduating and commissioning as a 2nd Lt. from the academy in June 1977, he went on to become a Communications-Electronics officer for the 679th Radar Squadron at a now decommissioned radar site at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, which he oversaw its decommissioning in September 1981.
Then it was on to Bergstrom AFB in Austin, Texas, with the 602nd Tactical Air Control Center, there he felt a calling to study medicine.
Turning down a unique assignment to oversee a major overhaul of the military communications systems for South Korea, it was the turning point he chose to leave a promising career in communications to pursue an even more difficult path: medical school.
Thomas says his time at the Air Force Academy helped him be prepared for medical school rigors and balancing his new military career as a communications officer in the Air Force Reserve.
Upon graduation from medical school at the University of North Texas in 1990, Thomas reentered Air Force active duty, accomplishing his residency at Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, Texas. His first assignment as a primary care doctor was at Malmstrom AFB, Montana. At Malmstrom, he would become a flight surgeon and return to the Reserves to pursue a career as an anesthesiologist in the civilian sector.
After finding his way to Alaska in 1997 for his civilian practice as an anesthesiologist, he formed a relationship with the Alaska Air National Guard while still serving as a reservist. Once a medical position opened in 2005, Thomas joined the Air National Guard as Chief of Aerospace Medicine at the 168th Medical Group, Eielson AFB, Alaska. When he accepted the position as State Air Surgeon of Alaska, Joint Forces Headquarters, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, he thought it would be his last unless he continued up the medical ladder outside of Alaska, which he didn’t want to do since it would likely require him to give up being a practicing physician and direct patient care.
Choosing to practice medicine and have direct contact with patients allowed Thomas to finish his career as commander of the 168th Medical Group from December 2014 until his retirement on April 19, 2020, after continually wearing an Air Force uniform for over 48 years.
Col. Richard Adams, 168th Wing commander, said, “It has been a pleasure to serve alongside Col. Thomas in the 168th Wing. Doc Thomas’ distinguished career of almost half a century has had many chapters, and the Guardians of the Last Frontier are grateful to have been a part of that epic journey.”
Thomas said his most memorable moments during his 48 years in uniform were “events where I was involved with a group, and we were accomplishing an objective or a goal or mission of training or deployment.” From a physician’s perspective, he said, “I’m most gratified from my participation in humanitarian missions.”
A highlight of his humanitarian service was in Timor-Leste, a Southeast Asia island nation between Indonesia and Australia, where he provided medical care to underprivileged islanders.
Thomas has seen five different uniforms changes for the Air Force during his career and has served under nine presidents. Thomas has worn the rank of colonel for almost 19 years. He has more than 1,715 flight hours, including more than 150 combat hours from his deployment to Iraq.