ABERDEEN, S.D. — It was a privilege.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Croymans didn't speak the phrase.
He didn’t have to. With a slight flush in his skin, he averts his eyes and wipes at invisible particles on his meeting table in his office. His voice holds steady.
“It went quick,” Croymans told the Aberdeen American News.
Croymans, 60, retired from the South Dakota National Guard after 43 years. He was officially honored May 4 during a retirement ceremony at Joint Force Headquarters on Camp Rapid.
He’s quick to call attention to the sacrifice his family and employers have made and the support they’ve shown him and every guard member. He never anticipated being at this stage when he signed on at 17. He’s 60 now and continues working in his civilian job as a highway engineer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs Central Office.
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He joined the Guard in October 1975. He would graduate high school in Wilmot the following spring. His father had been a first sergeant with the National Guard’s 740th in Milbank. There was a little pressure, but Croymans was also excited.
“When I first signed up, I wasn’t thinking about anything long term. It was more fun; just to do something different. Once a weekend get out, go do drill. It was a lot of fun in the beginning. So that put the hook in a while. I had a good time when I first got in,” Croymans said.
The first 10 years went by quickly so he decided he’d continue to the 20-year mark for full benefits.
“After a while, one opportunity after another came along. Each time I got a new job, there was a new set of challenges there. I kind of liked doing that kind of thing,” Croymans said.
Each advancement was spurred by different things — sometimes luck, sometimes timing. With each rise in rank, Croymans could count on more responsibility and bigger decisions with bigger consequences.
“All those things happened, especially in a career that’s this long, but it doesn’t always work the way you think it will,” he said.
When he joined the Guard, the U.S. was enjoying a peaceful respite after the Vietnam War. The Guard’s first active duty was during Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. It tested the Guard’s mettle in a way it hadn’t been for some time, Croymans said. This was after his time as a soldier, so he fulfilled his duties stateside.
“The last time the Guard was really utilized was in World War II. We had to up our game a bit, and we did. It was something that we had an integral part of,” Croymans said.
His career took him to Milbank, Brookings, Sioux Falls, Mitchell, Rapid City and Aberdeen. His first 14 years were as an enlisted soldier. The moving became more frequent, about every two years, when he got his commission and rose to second lieutenant. The Guard, run at the state level, sent Croymans and his compatriots to a number of disasters and incidents.
“Watertown floods in spring of ’98, coordination for fighting forest fires, search and rescue, those kinds of civil support activities,” he said. “It’s pretty rewarding work because you get to do something for the citizens of the state.”
More than 340 guardsmen are working throughout the Midwest to aid those impacted by unexpectedly high floodwaters.
In 1992, he married his wife, Vicki. He was 32, which he called “a little later in life.” His Guard duty was already ingrained and his family was understanding. It was just a mindset. Family activities, games, recitals and reunions all took a backseat to Croymans’ duty. That’s the shadow he hasn’t quite shaken — that automatic priority response.
This June, a big Guard month, will be the first time he can attend a Fathers Day fishing tournament, if he wants. For 43 years, there was no choice.
His wife likes to joke that he still may need to get away one weekend a month to keep for a happy home. He laughs that he wouldn’t know what to do if his hair touched his ears. He hadn’t considered modifying the regimental cut, now that he can.
At the thought, Croymans laughs heartily, wipes away another imaginary crumb and folds his hands humbly in service well spent.