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Air Force doctor retires after 48 years of service

Image of Uniformed officer standing next to an Air Force seal, wearing a stethoscope around his shoulders. Air Force Col. Craig Thomas retired in April 2020 after 48 years in uniform. (Photo by Air Force Tech Sgt. Adam Keele, 168th Wing, Eielson AFB, AK.)

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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 more than 48 years.

“It’s been quite a journey,” said Thomas.

He retired this past spring with little fanfare, as the entire Department of Defense medical community was engaged in response to the COVID-19 national emergency.

For his final assignment he served as commander and a chief flight surgeon for the 168th Wing in the Alaska Air National Guard. Before assuming command of the medical group, Thomas was the State Air Surgeon for Alaska at Joint Forces Headquarters Alaska, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

His first duty assignment at Norton Air Force Base, San Bernardino, California would eventually lead to a congressional appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

After graduating and commissioning as a 2nd Lt. from the academy in June 1977, he went on to become a Communications-Electronics officer and was station at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida; and Bergstrom AFB in Austin, Texas.

Thomas stated that 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, where he became a flight surgeon and return to the Reserves to pursue a civilian career as an anesthesiologist.

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 in central Alaska. When he accepted the position as State Air Surgeon of Alaska for Joint Forces Headquarters, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, he thought it would be his last.

Choosing to practice medicine and have direct contact with patients allowed Thomas to stay in Alaska and finish his career as commander of the 168th Medical Group until his retirement this past April. In his civilian career, Thomas maintains a private practice as an anesthesiologist in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Air Force Col. Richard Adams, 168th Wing commander, said, “It has been a pleasure to serve alongside Colonel 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.

Throughout his long career, he accumulated more than 1,715 flight hours, 150 of which were combat hours over Iraq. He also has the distinction of having served under nine different presidents.

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