Story by Sgt. Michael Camacho, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs
SPRINGFIELD – Col. Thomas Purple Jr. of Rochester will retire from the Illinois Army National Guard Feb. 6 after 30 years of military service.
“I’ve truly been blessed being in the Illinois National Guard,” said Purple. “It may not have been the path I thought I would have taken, but it ended up being the right path.”
Purple received his commission as an Air Force pilot after completing the Reserve Officer Training Course at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1983. He later transferred to the Air Force Reserves and ultimately joined the Illinois Army National Guard as an armor officer in 1986.
“I went from wanting to fly jets to being a Soldier in a tank,” said Purple.
Over the last three decades, Purple has served in several leadership and staff positions in units across Illinois. He said he has seen the Illinois National Guard grow and develop into the professional organization it is today.
Of all the positions he held, there are two that remain the most significant in his life, he said. The first was as a platoon leader for Troop B, 1st Battalion, 194th Cavalry Regiment in Marseilles, when he learned the value of leadership and the importance of his Soldiers in a few simple words.
“It was at the end of annual training, when a specialist said ‘Sir, I’m really glad you’re my platoon leader and I’m really glad I’m in your platoon,’” said Purple.
The second was as the deputy commander of the 404th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB). As a senior officer, he saw what his Soldiers and leaders accomplished throughout the MEB during its transformation from a chemical brigade.
Purple said the 404th MEB remains close to his heart. He helped develop it from the ground up.
“Maneuver enhancement brigades were a new concept that combined three major disciplines: chemical, engineers and military police,” said Purple. “We were writing the doctrine for the MEB.”
Col. Michael Haerr of Eureka, with the Illinois National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters said he met Purple in 1991 and Purple’s work in the domestic operations section in the early 1990s prepared for the development of the MEB and its capabilities to support emergency relief efforts.
Purple saw the ideas emerge and was able to provide a lot of knowledge for the MEB, said Haerr.
Purple also developed strong community connections in the local area of the 404th MEB’s headquarters, the Calumet Avenue Armory in Chicago. Among his outreach efforts was the premiere of the documentary “Brothers at War” during an open house event allowing the community to tour the armory.
“People always wanted to know what was going on at the armory,” said Purple. “That event allowed them to learn more about the armory, its Soldiers and the Illinois National Guard.”
Over the years, Haerr and Purple have worked together during various Illinois National Guard operations, missions and deployments.
“He leaves a legacy of leadership and developing junior leaders,” said Haerr. “I think at some point in our careers as senior officers it becomes less about what we’re doing to more about what we’re doing for the organization.”
Purple has supported Illinois during times of emergency including the floods of 1993 and 2008 among other events in support of civil authorities. In his career, Purple has completed overseas operations and missions in Poland, Belize and Ukraine.
He deployed to Iraq in 2004 to 2005 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and to Afghanistan in 2011 to 2012 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Purple said he will miss serving, but most of all he will miss the Soldiers he served alongside. As Purple retires, he said his love and respect for Soldiers will stay strong. He plans to continue working with veterans, wounded warriors and servicemembers. He will begin a new job with the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.
“I will always be a Guardsmen at heart,” said Purple. “I’m thankful for the leaders
above me and the mentors I’ve had who enabled me to be who I am now.”