Cameron H. Thomas joined the Fairmont High School swim team and practiced mixed martial arts because he wanted to become an Army Ranger, his father said.
It was the future soldier’s passion.
“It’s all he lived and breathed,” Andre L. Thomas, 58, said of his 23-year-old son. “Whatever he set his mind to, he did.”
Army Ranger Sgt. Cameron Thomas, who grew up in Kettering and graduated from Fairmont in 2012, died late Wednesday in a raid on an ISIS-K compound as U.S. and Afghan forces targeted high-level insurgent leaders in eastern Afghanistan. He was killed by small-arms fire, according to the Department of Defense.
He was on his third combat deployment to Afghanistan and was due to return home on leave in a few weeks to see his family, which is now living in Virginia, his father said.
The military said an investigation has been launched into whether “friendly fire” during the three-hour fire-fight killed Thomas and fellow soldier Sgt. Joshua P. Rodgers, 22, of Bloomington, Ill. Both were assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga. A third U.S. soldier was injured in the battle.
Andre Thomas said his wounded son died while being evacuated on a helicopter. He said he had talked with his son about the risks of war.
“We had talks about the possibility of losing his life and he always said that he’d rather die defending his country and protecting his family than dying in a car accident or cancer,” the Rixeyville, Va., man said.
The Air Force veteran who was once stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base said he bore no animosity toward the military regardless of how his son died in combat, whether it was friendly fire or something else.
“He knew what he was facing and there was confusion,” Andre Thomas said. “This happens. As far as us, we have no animosity or anything against anyone. If it happened, it happened and war is awful. I hate it and I wish we didn’t have it.”
His son was light-hearted and made family members laugh, he said.
“Everybody would be down and he’d do or say something that would make everybody laugh and lighten spirits,” he said. “As a family, we’re all united. We know this is what he wanted and was his passion.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s office announced Friday that flags will be lowered when the fallen soldier is buried. Funeral services are pending in Virginia.
According to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, two Army Ranger platoons and a similar-sized Afghan Special Security Forces unit flew on helicopters into the Mohamand Valley at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Afghanistan time, near the headquarters of a leader in an group affiliated with the Islamic State, known as ISIS-K.
“Within a few minutes of landing, our combined forces came under intense fire from multiple directions and well-prepared fighting positions,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan said in a statement.
The raid was at close quarters. Allied air strikes struck the compound to provide cover to evacuate injured Rangers. In the ensuing fire-fight, several high-level ISIS-K leaders and “and upwards of 35 fighters” were killed. Authorities reported no civilian causalities were known.
If the deaths of the ISIS-K leaders were confirmed, the statement said, it would “significantly degrade” their operations in Afghanistan.
Their deaths happened in the same province the U.S. military dropped an 11-ton bomb on a complex of ISIS tunnels earlier this month. Recently the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan testified to Congress the United States may need thousands more troops to break a stalemate in the 15-year-old war.
U.S. officials also have said the Russians could be arming the Taliban who are fighting American troops in Afghanistan. The United States has 8,400 soldiers and the NATO alliance has about 5,000 troops in the country.
‘Doesn’t seem real’
Thomas was one of 12 children, a mixture of biological and adopted brothers and sisters in a Mormon family. The family moved last year from Kettering to a home on a mountain in rural Virginia after living in the Dayton-area about a decade, Andre Thomas said.
David M. Fauber, bishop of the Kettering ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said he remembered talking with Andre and Cameron Thomas about the risks of military life. Cameron understood those dangers, he said.
“He was the kind of guy people liked to talk to, confide in, just a quiet, good kid that was always concerned about other people more than himself,” Fauber said.
Fairmont Principal Tyler Alexander lamented the loss of the former student.
“It’s sad,” the principal said. “But we respect what he chose to do to fight for our country, to provide us with an opportunity to have what we have.”
Close friends who knew the fallen soldier described his loss as surreal.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” said Tyler M. Sprenger, 24, who met Thomas and his older brother while they were skateboarding in Kettering about a decade ago. Thomas and Sprenger worked at a miniature golf course as teenagers and both attended Fairmont. “I mean, everyone is just so heartbroken. We knew what type of stuff Cameron was doing and you hear on the news of soldiers being killed in Afghanistan … and no one thought it would really happen.”
Sprenger, an Army helicopter mechanic at Fort Bragg, N.C., said he decided to enlist in the military after he talked to Thomas.
“He was just talking about all the cool things that interested me at the time,” said Sprenger, who lived with Thomas’s family for a time before boot camp. “I was going through some stuff in my life and I was like, well, maybe I should join the Army and feel like I had a purpose.”
The long-time friends planned to become roommates when Thomas returned from deployment and expected to transfer to a Special Forces unit at Fort Bragg, Sprenger said Friday.
“I would just say he’s a brother,” the fellow soldier said. “I just remember him as like the brother that I always wanted.”
‘Invincible’ and ‘hard charging’
Matthew D. Summers, 29, of Bloomington, Ill., said he served with Thomas as an Army Ranger, both stateside and on deployments to Afghanistan. Thomas, he said, was an “invincible” and a “hard-charging” person.
“I just want people to understand how Cameron was a positive person and he was always uplifting,” Summers said Friday. “No matter the hardships that we faced, the sleepless nights, the deployments all around the world, isolation at times, losing a friend — no matter what was going, no matter the circumstances — Cameron brought people up.
“… I just want people to know that Cameron’s life was not wasted,” he said.
He dismissed the possibility friendly fire was the cause of Thomas’ death. He said he has spoken to other soldiers who were at the battle, and he believes Thomas did not die from friendly fire.
With Thomas’ help, Summers said he reached a “hard decision” to leave the military in November to take care of his wife and two young children while he attends college at Illinois State University.
“I talked to him Monday and Tuesday,” he said. “I talked to him pretty much every day. It’s just an unreal feeling. It’s such a devastating loss. Cameron was more than a friend to me. He was more than a friend to a lot of people. He was family. He was my brother.”
Congressional and military leaders also paid tribute to the fallen soldier Friday.
WHIO reporter John Bedell and DDN staff writer Lynn Hulsey contributed to this story.