QUINCY -- From behind the desk of his second floor office at First Bankers Trust Co., Scott Thoele looks to be far removed from the life of danger and tough decisions he once led.
Maj. Gen. Thoele, 59, retired from a 35-year military career in September 2015 and settled in as internal audit manager at First Bankers Trust. He held on to the buzz cut.
Hanging near the door is a cross and Marc Wolfe's picture, "Forever, My Brother," a memorial to those who fell under Thoele's command. The picture superimposes members of the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and 33rd Infantry Divison during major American conflicts throughout history into an image of modern-day soldiers mourning the loss of four of their brothers at Camp Echo in Iraq. Thoele's unit commissioned the piece, which captured the first four casualties of the deployment. Thoele served as brigade commander when the 33rd Infantry deployed 3,000 servicemen in 2008, the largest deployment of Illinois National Guardsmen since World War II.
"The toughest part is putting the caskets onto the airplanes," Thoele said. "That's your last goodbye."
Thoele grew up on a hobby farm in Teutopolis, Ill., a village of 1,500 or so in Effingham County known best for the high school's basketball program. Thoele wanted to be a baseball player, and the pursuit brought him to Quincy College.
"I always had an interest in the military, but my first love was to play baseball," he said. "Once you start playing against the big kids from Chicago, you soon learn you're a good player, but you're not that good of a player."
When it became clear that baseball wouldn't be his path, he decided to join the military. His father had been a Seabee in the Navy during World War II, and the team-like atmosphere of the armed forces appealed to him.
Just before his senior baseball season began, he joined the Army with the option of attending Officer Candidate School (OCS). After graduating Quincy College, he was commissioned as an infantry officer, landing his first assignment as a lieutenant with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C.
"I was pretty lucky, I got to do everything I wanted to do," he said. "I wanted to be a paratrooper, and I got to do that. I wanted to go to Ranger School, and I got to do that."
As the 82nd Airborne is a unit of the Army's strategic reserve, it is generally one of the first to be called upon in dangerous situations. Thoele was serving on the division's on-call unit, the Division Ready Battalion, in 1983 when Operation Urgent Fury required the battalion to deploy onto the ground in Grenada to rescue 600 American medical students trapped on the island in the midst of the political upheaval. It was Thoele's first assignment. He was a company executive officer at the time, the second in command in the rifle company under the captain.
"When you go to the air strip to get on the plane, you start walking through the stations, and they start dumping in live ammunition and equipment," he said. "That's when you realize this isn't a drill. This is for real."
The 82nd Airborne lost two soldiers in the deployment, and the Army rangers lost eight.
Like all other soldiers, he said, he didn't enter the military with the goal of reaching the highest ranks. He wanted only to survive for 20 years in order to qualify for a pension.
During Ranger School, he recalls spending two months tromping through the woods, sleeping little more than six hours a week and eating only one meal a day. He graduated to become an Army ranger.
"It's a constant gut-check," he said. "I thought everybody did it, but I found out very few people go to it. I was fortunate to get selected to go."
After four years of active duty in the Army, he joined the Army Reserves and went to Special Forces School, which led to his becoming a Green Beret. When the Army Reserve Special Forces units were deactivated and transitioned into the Illinois National Guard, Thoele followed and found himself commanding a special forces unit out of Chicago. The unit was mobilized during the First Gulf War to train indigenous soldiers in Jordan.
Training a few months out of the year while in the National Guard, Thoele began working at First Bankers Trust. His employers, he said, were always supportive of his military endeavors and understood that he could be called away for extended periods of time.
"When 9/11 happened," he said, "I was gone a lot -- about every other year for 14 years."
Thoele was on the phone with a customer when the first plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He was watching the news when the second plane hit, and he immediately went home to pack his gear and wait for the phone to ring. He got the call two days later.
His unit was sent to guard military bases across Europe, a deployment that saw him overseeing 1,000 people and regularly traveling across the continent.
"It was kind of a crummy mission for the soldiers, just standing on guard duty all the time," he said, "but for me personally, it was great. I call it my European vacation."
His next assignment saw him working in the Army Operations Center in the basement of the Pentagon for six months. He jokes that the Army got even on the third assignment, which took him to Iraq to embed in the Polish Army, coordinating operations. As fighting ramped up about four months into the deployment, Thoele remembers the base being rocketed every night.
The final mission
Thoele's final deployment, during which he served as brigade commander of the 33rd Infantry Brigade, fell under Task Force Phoenix. The mission was to train Iraqi policemen and soldiers. All of the American soldiers were embedded in Iraqi units.
Task Force Phoenix brought together members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, but was comprised mainly of reservists. Thoele simultaneously served as deputy commander, the second in command over the more than 6,000 soldiers involved in the mission.
"Once again, I had people all over the country, and I was traveling a lot," he said. "That was interesting, and that was a very dangerous mission."
Forty-one soldiers died during the nine-month mission -- 18 from Thoele's unit.
"I had to write the letters home," he said. "As a brigade commander, I can't say I knew these kids personally, but you feel it very strongly. You're in charge, and you feel that you let somebody down. War is a very random thing -- you can do everything right and still be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
When he returned from the deployment, Thoele was promoted to brigadier general. He served for three years as deputy commanding general of Fort Leavenworth, before being promoted to major general. He accumulated more than 20 medals and ribbons over his career and has worked with every current senior leader in the Army.
"I miss being with the soldiers," he said, "but the military is a young man's game."
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