TAMPA — By now, Army Gen. Joseph Votel is a familiar figure in Tampa, where he’s led U.S. Special Operations Command since August 2014 and is set to take over U.S. Central Command from the retiring Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III in a Wednesday afternoon ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base.
He’s been widely lauded as the right man at the right time to run Centcom.
Less well known beyond military circles in Tampa is Raymond “Tony” Thomas III, the man who is replacing Votel at Socom, also during a change of command ceremony at the base that’s home to both commands. Both men are 57.
Thomas, who comes to Socom after running Joint Special Operations Command — the military’s elite hunter-killer counterterrorism command — has a long history of command. He served as assistant director for military affairs at the CIA, commanded all special operations forces in Afghanistan, served as senior special operations officer on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, and held command positions with the Army, including the Ranger Regiment and Delta Force. Thomas is a 1980 graduate of West Point.
Those who have worked for Thomas, and for whom Thomas has worked, use similar terms to describe the commander who will become MacDill’s newest four-star general.
Great athlete. Great soldier. Great teacher. Unconventional thinker. Not afraid to speak truth to power.
Nate Self was a newly minted lieutenant with the 1st Ranger Battalion at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia when he first met battalion commander Lt. Col. Tony Thomas in 2000. Thomas had just taken over for another lieutenant colonel, named Joe Votel.
Thomas impressed his young officers, Self says.
By the time Thomas arrived at Hunter, he had already seen hard fighting and had taken part in the only two combat parachute missions of the era, in Grenada and again in Panama.
“He had been in secret units here and there,” says Self, a decorated veteran who survived the Battle of Roberts Ridge, one of the toughest fights in the Afghanistan War. “He was the epitome of what all of us wanted to be. He represented for us the dark side of the special operations world and we were all really intrigued.”
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Self says Thomas had the young officers under his command read “Gates of Fire,” a novel about the last stand of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, as well as “Spec Ops,” a book written about a compilation of special operations missions by former Socom commander William McRaven.
“He made you read those books before you met him, and then he would take us on five-mile runs to talk about them,” says Self, who went on to write “Two Wars,” his own book about his time in the Army. “I know a lot of the guys didn’t get too deep in conversation because the pace of the run was too fast.”
The books and the runs were part of Thomas’ effort to teach and nurture young leaders, Self says, something that would stay with him his entire career and come in handy during the March, 2002 Battle of Roberts Ridge, where seven U.S. troops, including three members of his own platoon, would die.
Self says he was also impressed that Thomas, commander of a battalion, was still in touch with “the nuances of small unit tactics.”
“He had so much wisdom and knowledge and insight,” says Self, who now runs a consulting business in Salado, Texas. “Sometimes, you run across officers who get a little detached from trigger pulling. He was definitely a hands-on guy when I knew him.”
Thomas was also a deep thinker, Self says.
He recalls one instance when Thomas, who had been a runner at West Point, changed the battalion’s workout clothing to a sleeveless, dry-fit track jersey, which Thomas thought was a better match for hot and humid Savannah.
“He was always trying to make things better for performance, but he drew some flak for that. You don’t just change what the Rangers wear. But he thought it just made sense. The guys loved him for that.”
Unlike a lot of military commanders, who are too concerned about career to rock the boat, Thomas was outspoken, Self says, and continued to make his points known when he and parts of the battalion arrived in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve 2001.
“When we were in Afghanistan, he would routinely speak up and provide contrary opinions and contrary thought. He really pushed the envelope of group think.”
At the time, Thomas was considered “a bit on the edge, and maybe not politically correct enough to be promoted to commander of the Ranger Regiment,” Self says. “Now the man is getting promoted to his fourth star, so I guess the system worked.”
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The Battle of Roberts Ridge was one of those times when Thomas spoke truth to power. Three members of a platoon in his command were killed in that battle when they went to help as a quick reaction force.
“We had a strong conversation the night of Roberts Ridge,” says Frank Kearney, a retired Army lieutenant general and former Socom deputy commander who was serving at the time as operations director of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan and one of Thomas’ bosses. “He was not happy with the way his team had been deployed. He and I had that conversation. He was very direct with me, as one of the people who made the decision to deploy them.”
But the tough conversation didn’t upset Kearney. Quite the contrary.
“Frankly, people welcome that,” says Kearney, who commanded Thomas several times during their careers, including when Thomas was a lieutenant. “As long as you recognize he is like that as a leader, you learn a lot when a smart guy brings up stuff other people won’t say. He has always been like that.”
Last year, in a conversation with the West Point Combating Terrorism Center, Thomas showed he hasn’t changed.
“I’m told ‘no’ more than ‘go’ on a magnitude of about 10 to 1 on a daily basis,” Thomas said, speaking of his time as JSOC commander. “I have to regulate my own frustration there to make sure it doesn’t trickle down to the force.”
Saying he was more of a “subjective feel guy” than one driven completely by data, Thomas said “you can’t look at the array right now, and not sense that we’re losing. We are losing across the board, from the North African littoral all the way through to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
But there’s more to Thomas than someone unafraid to speak his mind.
In 2008, Thomas was overseeing U.S. troops in Iraqi city of Mosul, where he survived a head-on attack on his armored vehicle by a car bomb, according to the Washington Post. And both he and his wife Barb have a history of caring for the troops and their families, Self and Kearney say.
Then there is his experience.
“What will make him a great Socom commander is the breadth of his experience across special operations command,” Kearney says. “You cannot find a guy who has commanded Rangers and special mission units and was the first NATO SOF commander. He was deputy commanding general of the 1st Armored Division. He also worked in Colombia doing counter drug interdiction. And he has recognized what to do to empower young leaders.
“He has all the skill sets we want across the spectrum in Socom.”