MAHOMET. Ill. (AP) — After almost 11 months in their brand-new Mahomet home, Ben and Nicole Thomann are still tweaking their decor.
But one item has found a long-term place of honor on the family-room wall, and if it could talk, oh, the stories it might tell.
“On my first deployment to Afghanistan in 2003, I asked my parents to send me the flag and they sent me the flag we used to fly at the house, and from that point on, I carried it with me wherever I went,” said Ben Thomann.
The 39-year-old Thomann is about to officially retire from the Army, which he has served honorably for almost 22 years, The News-Gazette of Champaign reports.
He recently had his Stars and Stripes framed at a local crafts store.
“It’s seen better days,” he said. “It’s worn. The edges are frayed and coming apart.”
Although faded, it’s mostly intact and still striking in its beauty.
Thomann and his family are grateful that the flag has been retired from its original intended purpose.
“I started to carry it for kind of a morbid reason,” he said. “If you get killed, they drape your remains in a flag. I wanted it to be a special flag.
“I’ve flown it off the back of Humvees, armored vehicles in firefights in Iraq, at half mast over various camps for fallen service members on numerous occasions,” he added. “It’s been with me, either in my bag or on the back of my body armor, since 2003.”
Thomann estimates the flag has been to 25 countries, starting at its first home in Custer Park in Will County, and ending in his new home in Mahomet in Champaign County, where he plans for it to remain for “the foreseeable future.”
In between, it’s been to Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few.
“My area of specialty kept me primarily in Asia,” he said. “I’m a Green Beret, Army Special Forces. I ran my own teams where I was able to lead them through several operations in different countries” — including a few he cannot name because it’s not publicly known that the U.S. has a presence in those places.
Suffice it to say, Thomann has been to many places far, far away from his childhood home near the Kankakee River, where he grew up with an older brother, Matt, and a younger sister, Emily.
His folks, Terry and Jane Thomann, who now live in Virginia, moved the family to Morton when he was in high school. There, Thomann met his wife, Nicole, who dated him for a while but wasn’t interested in following him when he joined the military right out of high school.
“I wanted to go to college,” she said, simply.
Her choice paid off, as she’s now a board-certified behavior analyst working on her doctoral degree while teaching college courses.
After she got out of college, she and Ben reunited in 2006 and married in 2011. She was with him while he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for several years and was able to finish her master’s degree online. Otherwise, she’s been mostly stateside in Fort Bragg, N.C., or Fort Lewis, Wash., as he served. They have an 8-year-old daughter, Adalyn. Ben has an older daughter, Skyler, 16, who lives in New York.
The son of a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy and the grandson of World War II vets who served in the Army and Navy, Thomann said he felt “destined to be in the military.” His father and grandfathers did not choose, however, to make a career of their service.
“I didn’t expect to go the full 20 years,” he said. “I originally enlisted in the infantry. During my first deployment in 2003, I worked with a Special Forces team over there and I was just star-struck at how professional and amazing they were at their jobs. I decided right then, ‘I have to do that.’
“The selection process is grueling. I could talk for days about what they look for, the psychological process,” added Thomann, who is clearly passionate about his service with the elite group of soldiers. “Once you are selected, it’s two years of training. It’s not just physical. It’s the mental aptitude that plays a huge part.
“The motto of the Green Beret is to ‘free the oppressed.’ We seek out hot spots in the world where the government is doing bad things to good people and we try to put a stop to it.”
The elite group’s nontraditional aspect appealed to Thomann.
“One thing the Green Berets are kind of famous for is thinking outside the box,” he said. “We don’t typically fall into a typical military mindset.
“We talk through problems and come up with solutions together. My team members don’t address me by rank. It’s by first names, very collaborative,” he added. “I sit with my team and have a roundtable discussion. Everyone has a chance to come up with options. We talk it out, but when the bullets are flying, you have to trust me to make the right decision.”
Trained in counter-terrorism techniques, Thomann has a raft of skills, including how to scale mountains. He has a tool used for that encased in another frame that hangs next to his flag.
Those treasured military mementos include pictures of a team he led for three years in Afghanistan and a placard with a Ben Thomann quote: “I’m going to go find something over here to blow up.”
He also has a letter personally signed by former President Donald Trump thanking him for his service.
Thomann said he ran security for the president when Trump visited troops in the Mideast on Thanksgiving 2019. Trump met many of Thomann’s friends and handed out valor awards and special coins, but Thomann missed out on those. Hearing that, his dad wrote the White House about the omission and Trump responded with the thank-you letter, also now part of the family-room decor.
Still to be added to the walls are photographs of Afghan soldiers and civilians who worked with the U.S. troops.
“So far, I’ve helped four Afghan nationals move here to the U.S. and am now working to get a few more here,” he said. “The special immigration visa program is so bogged down, it’s ridiculous.
“In the past six months, two of my guys who worked for me have been murdered while waiting to come here,” he added. “The Taliban and ISIS are working double-time to murder these people who helped us. I’ve emailed senators and congressmen doing everything I can to help these guys get here. Some of these guys have saved dozens of U.S. members’ lives.”
As for his flag, Thomann said he appreciates the attention it’s getting and hopes its stay in Mahomet will be long-term as he recently began a new career at electric-car manufacturer Rivian in Normal.
His folks “didn’t even know what I was doing with it over the last 20 years,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got it framed and I showed it to them. It was kind of emotional for both my parents. They’re obviously very proud.”
His daughter, Adalyn, is also in that camp. She’s been to the Special Forces memorial at his group’s headquarters at Fort Lewis, where they have talked about the sacrifices of soldiers.
“She is proud of it and has brought friends to our house,” he said. “She says, ‘This is my dad’s flag. This is where it has been.’ I think it’s good for her and I hope it’s instilling values in her that I don’t know all the kids get these days.
“I believe a lot in what this country stands for,” he added. “We’re a symbol around the world, and it’s something people who are born in this country and lived in this country all their lives forget sometimes.
“It’s easy to become kind of complacent here. Through my travels, meeting people and working with foreign people is a great reminder of how good we have it here. I often thought it was funny that the only people who don’t want to be in America are the Americans.”