Air Force veteran Brent Thomas views coaching as ‘extension of classroom’

L-P special ed teacher, assistant swimming coach’s wife, two daughters also served

Brent Thomas, Veteran and assistant swimming coach at La Salle-Peru Township High School, poses for a photo on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 at L-P High School.

A couple years after graduating from Ottawa High School, Brent Thomas tried community college but decided it wasn’t for him.

“It wasn’t working out,” Thomas said. “I needed something a little bit more focused.”

That led him to the military.

Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served from 1995 to 2004. He got married, and Thomas and his wife, Karen, joined the Air Force together.

Thomas’ military experience led him to his current job as a special education teacher and coach at La Salle-Peru High School.

“My time in the military working with younger troops and new troops when they came in, and my time working as a Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor (in the Air Force), those things sort of laid the ground work to moving into the civilian world working as an educator and then moving into coaching, which is just a further extension of the classroom.”

After enlisting, Thomas went to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Part of his tech school was there, as well, and the other half was at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

Thomas then went to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where he served as a military police officer, which in the Air Force is called security forces. He also served as a trainer in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which led to his pursuit of teaching after he left the military.

“I worked what they call ‘flight,’ where I was a law enforcement troop, so that meant I was doing base entry for the first few years until you learn the job a little better,” Thomas said. “From there, I was doing regular police-type jobs. I was in a patrol car pulling people over for speeding, going to robberies, all those kind of things.

“Later on, I became a desk seargent, so I was the one who was dispatching patrols and doing reports and that sort of thing, making sure the flight was running properly.”

Thomas also had stints in southern Italy and Honduras.

Thomas was in Italy in the summer of 1997, helping the mission against Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia who later was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide.

“It was the same type of role, but our mission had changed a little bit,” Thomas said. “We were in a support role to stop what he was doing.”

In Honduras, he was stationed at Soto Cano Air Base.

“We had regular security missions, regular base military police-type missions, but we also had medical missions and drug interdiction missions, where you would work with civilian counterparts in the local areas,” Thomas said.

When it was time to reenlist, Thomas returned for six years, while his wife, who was a surgical tech, did a four-year stint so the couple could stagger their exits for their two daughters.

In 2004, after leaving the Air Force, Thomas went to Illinois State University to get his undergraduate degree in history education. He started teaching in 2008 and became a special education teacher in 2010.

Thomas also has taught at Earlville, the Kishwaukee Education Consortium in DeKalb, Serena, and now is in his second year at L-P.

“Through some work experiences and life experiences, I found my way to special education and have been doing that ever since,” Thomas said. “This is only my second year at L-P, but it’s been fantastic. They have a really excellent program here, so I really enjoy doing it.”

Thomas previously coached track and field and became an assistant boys swimming coach when he got to L-P.

He started doing triathlons about five years ago. He’s run a couple full Ironmans, several half Ironmans and has competed in sprint triathlons.

“Since I’m a triathlete, swimming is something I have a little bit of a background in, and I thought it would be a good fit, and it’s seemed to work out pretty well,” Thomas said. “I like to coach because special education can be a little bit isolating, but with coaching you’re pushing yourself out into the community a little bit more, so you’re getting to know more people. That’s part of the reason I do it.

“I also like it because it’s another opportunity to help students learn whether it’s a skill set they’re learning in the sport or if it’s sportsmanship or any of the other things that happen to come along with sports.”

Thomas’ two daughters, Kirsten and Morgan, both enlisted in the Air Force as well. Kirsten is an aircraft load master at Kirtland Air Force Base who flies on C-130s picking up and dropping off implements, while Morgan works in air traffic control at Holloman Air Force Base.

“They’ve excelled and done really well for themselves, and I couldn’t be prouder,” Thomas said.