CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- When a Marine retires after 20 years of active duty, he or she is considered a "Career Marine." Lt. Col. Ray O. Thomas redefines that term.
Thomas will walk away from the Corps July 13, but not before serving his country through eight U.S. presidents and 10 Marine Corps Commandants - a feat of service longevity which took the former enlisted Marine and warrant officer 36 years to achieve.
Thomas enlisted as a private in 1965, and immediately transferred to Vietnam to serve in combat with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. After his tour, he was shipped back to the United States, where he was discharged as a sergeant in 1968. Although he stayed Marine as a reservist, Thomas said he had no intentions of rejoining the active ranks. However, as his three years of reserve duty progressed, the Lewes, Del., native realized he had a void that needed to be filled.
"There was a challenge missing from civilian life," explained Thomas, who is currently serving as II Marine Expeditionary Force's ordnance officer.
He rejoined the Marine Corps for a second tour in Vietnam, this time with 3rd Tank Battalion. After this tour, Thomas returned to the states to teach at Marine Corps Base Schools, Camp Pendleton.
Thomas kept with the teaching theme when he became a drill instructor in 1974, a tour in which saw Thomas promoted to staff sergeant. He then became a D.I. Instructor, and was meritoriously promoted to gunnery sergeant, after just a year at his previous rank.
Upon completion of this duty and after serving as an instructor at Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., Thomas made his first big career shift when he was selected to become a warrant officer in 1979.
"I always respected warrant officers," said Thomas. "They hold themselves with a certain swagger. They are very professional."
After completing the Warrant Officer Basic Course, Thomas graduated from the Ordnance Officers' course in 1980, and subsequently began his first of many tours with tracked vehicle units, beginning with 3rd Tank Bn., the same unit he fought with in Vietnam.
Just three years after obtaining the rank of warrant officer, Thomas was headed for another change - this time being selected for the limited duty officer program. In 1983, nearly twenty years after first donning the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, Thomas began a climb through a third set of ranks, beginning at first lieutenant.
Thomas returned to Camp Lejeune in 1984, serving with Brigade Service Support Group-6 as the maintenance management officer. He would also serve with 2nd Maintenance Bn. and 2nd Tank Bn. before heading to Headquarters Marine Corps, where he helped field the M1A1 tanks and other new weapons systems for employment for Operation Desert Storm.
Thomas is now the senior ordnance officer in the Marine Corps, but he remains humble about his Marine Corps career.
"It still seems like yesterday I was at Parris Island," reminisced Thomas. "It's hard to believe that two-thirds of my life has been as a Marine."
The 54- year-old said he has had several job offers from civilian ordnance companies, but is still unsure as to what direction his civilian life will take him. For the time being, he is happy here.
"Camp Lejeune is my home. I love it here,' he said.
His retirement is an emotional issue for Thomas, who said the hardest part about leaving after 36 years is simply walking away from what he knows best - being a Marine.
"I know in my head what I want to say (at the retirement ceremony)," he said. "I just have to get through it. It's going to be hard."
Thomas has earned the Purple Heart, three Meritorious Service Medals, Two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, the Combat Action Ribbon and a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal during a career he describes as, simply, "fun."