By Barbara Wilson, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office
After a 37 year career in the Illinois Army National Guard, Col. Rodney Thacker, of Chatham, Illinois, has retired from military service.
“This is a sad day for the Illinois National Guard. Today, after 37 years of service, we lose an icon,” said Maj. Gen. Michael R. Zerbonia, Assistant Adjutant General – Army, Illinois Army National Guard, at Thacker’s retirement ceremony Aug. 23. “You have served as a commander at all levels, from the bottom of the state to almost the top. But this is a great day for the Thacker family.”
Zerbonia thanked Thacker’s family for their support and sacrifice.
“Thank you for your support and sacrifice,” Zerbonia told Thacker’s family. “You endured Rodney’s hardships as your own. I think you’re American heroes.”
“Rodney, we appreciate your service and everything you’ve done for this state. If there is a person you’d want to build a team in this organization, that’s the man you want,” Zerbonia said. “If we don’t remember anything, remember everything we do is all about the Soldiers. That’s the man who made sure that mantra stayed in the Illinois National Guard.”
Thacker addressed family and friends who attended the ceremony at the Illinois Military Academy at Camp Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois.
“I’m humbled by the turnout today,” Thacker said. “Sir, you’ve been my boss off and on for the past five years, but you’ve also been my friend. Thank you for officiating today.”
Thacker said his family had asked earlier in the day if he planned to talk long at the retirement ceremony.
“I told them I have 37 years of military stuff floating around in my head, so I can talk a long time,” he said. “But in all honesty, when I first enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be here giving a retirement speech.”
Thacker said the support of many attending his retirement ceremony was the reason he was able to serve for so long.
“This has been a great ride,” he said. “I had no idea what I was getting into when my recruiter started calling. But I knew I was all in when he said the National Guard would pay for college. And now, 37 years later there hasn’t been one day I haven’t been proud to put on this uniform.”
Thacker said many people were instrumental in his career.
“There’s an old saying that you don’t do names at retirement ceremonies because you’ll forget someone, but I will mention a couple because they’ve had such an impact on my career,” he said. “To my personal friends and the friends I’ve met through the military, I’m a much better man, officer and Soldier since I’ve been hanging out with you guys.”
Thacker, who spent the first few years of his career as an enlisted Soldier thanked the Non-Commissioned Officers who “taught me so much about taking care of Soldiers and who took care of me when I was in command positions.”
“Being a former Non-Commissioned Officer, and as a young officer, I was taught by Vietnam-era platoon sergeants,” he said. “I watched senior Non-Commissioned Officers take care of Soldiers. Old school! When I say old school, I’m talking about typewriters and carbon paper. And they did a great job.”
“I worked with Non-Commissioned Officers like Gary Wilkerson, who convinced me to take the training officer job in Marion which started my full-time career,” he said. “He also taught me so much about being a full-time guardsman.”
Thacker also thanked his family for their support throughout his career.
“I’ve been fortunate to have in-laws who are supportive of my being in the military. My parents have always been there for my brother and I,” he said. “They allowed us to grow up to be the men we wanted to be. We lost mom a few months ago, but I know she’d be happy I’m retiring.”
Thacker singled out his sons and wife in thanking them for their support and the sacrifices they made during his career.
“To my sons, I missed way too many events in your lives,” he said. “My wife, April, is a great military wife. Sometimes you lose focus on what is important in your lives, but April made sure we had balance in our lives.”
Thacker challenged each full-time employee in the Illinois National Guard to remember the priority of their jobs.
“The only reason we exist as full timers is to take care of the traditional National Guard force,” he said. “In 25 years of working full time for the Illinois National Guard, I’ve never forgotten that priority. I challenge you to never forget that priority.”
Thacker, originally from Sorento, Illinois, enlisted in 1982 as an 11B, Infantry, and began his career with Company C, 3rd Battalion, 130th Infantry Regiment in Salem, Illinois. Thacker was 16 years old at the time, just 12 days shy of his birthday.
“My dad and uncle both served in Vietnam, so I felt the calling to serve,” Thacker said. “I wanted to go to college, so when the recruiter started talking about the National Guard scholarship, I knew this was the right decision.”
Thacker, who commissioned as a second lieutenant through the Illinois Army National Guard Officer Candidate School in 1990, has served in a variety of leadership positions throughout his career, including Commander, Service Battery and Battery C, 3rd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery, Commander, 2nd Squadron, 106th Cavalry Regiment and 65th Troop Command Brigade Commander. Thacker has also served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, and J3 (Homeland Security and Emergency Management). He currently serves as the full time Construction and Facilities Management Officer for the Illinois National Guard, a position he has held since July, 2018.
In 2008, Thacker deployed with the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and served as an Embedded Training Team Mentor in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“During the deployment, we served in mentor roles to Afghan forces,” he said. “We served alongside the 205th Afghan Corps leadership and offered guidance and mentorship as necessary.”
“As the Deputy Chief of Staff of Operations, I had the honor to be involved so many different training aspects of the Illinois Army National Guard. It was a hard job but very rewarding because my team was impacting training opportunities and operations down to the Soldier and Company level”.
“During my time at J-3, I’ve worked with various state agencies and was involved with incident and emergency preparedness,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed my time here as the Facilities Management Officer. I never dreamed this would be the position to finish out my career.”
Thacker said the Illinois National Guard has changed since he first donned the uniform as a teenager.
“It’s not the same National Guard as it was when I first enlisted,” Thacker said. “When I enlisted in 1982, there were still Vietnam veterans with knowledge to pass on.”
“At that time, the National Guard as a whole was a more carefree organization than it needed to be,” he said. “That started to change with Desert Storm. The training changed. With the terrorist attacks of September 11, it all changed. It created a different mindset, which turned out to be a great transition to today’s Army National Guard.”
Among the things Thacker will miss most about serving in the military are friendships and the structured environment offered by a military career.
“The structured environment serves a purpose,” he said. “It shaped me into the person I am today.”
“I’ve made some great friends,” he continued. “Many are like family.”
Having served as an enlisted Soldier prior to receiving his commission, Thacker had a piece of advice for enlisted Soldiers considering commissioning.
“If you want to make changes in policy, becoming an officer is a great opportunity to get into the process. Officers give guidance to policy,” he said. “Non-Commissioned officers enforce policy. I’ve worked with some outstanding Non-Commissioned officers in my career who understood their importance of executing guidance and policy. They are the reason our military is so strong. Without them, we could not execute our mission!”
“Officers will work with thousands of troops through the course of their career. Everyone is a different person,” Thacker said. “You will have to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Soldiers you lead.”
Thacker describes himself as an easy going leader, but one who can make a quick decision when needed.
“Although I do make quick decisions when necessary, I like to mull around the options for a bit,” Thacker said. “I like to think out all the possible impacts in an effort to reach the right decision.”
Thacker said he was fortunate to have a couple of great mentors early in his career.
“When I was an enlisted Soldier, then Lieutenant Mark Leposky convinced two of us to attend Officer Candidate School,” he said. “After graduating from Officer Candidate School and Officer Basic Course, I was fortunate to serve as a platoon leader under Captain Mark Leposky. He gave us homework to do between drills. I learned a lot from him.”
Thacker described his other mentor, Col. (ret.) Thomas Weiss, as a leader who “had a strong passion for training.”
“He would go the extra mile for his Soldiers and get the resources needed,” Thacker said. “He would work to make available overseas training opportunities.”
In a 37 year career, Thacker said that a couple of memorable experiences stand out in his mind.
“The first was winter camp at Fort Ripley, Minnesota,” he said. “We slept in snow caves, lived in tents, served fire guard and did a lot of cross-country skiing.”
The second memory Thacker said was when he was urged to attend OCS.
“We were sitting on the banks of Carlyle Lake after an afternoon of water survival training,” he said. “Lieutenant Leposky told a couple of us we had what it takes to be good officers.”
A third memory was the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s deployment to Afghanistan in 2008.
“The deployment was a great experience as I served as a mentor to two one-star Afghan generals,” said Thacker, who deployed with 2nd Squadron, 106th Cavalry Regiment. “It was a hard deployment also because we lost two Cavalry Troopers that were under my command and so many more Warriors across the Brigade.”
Thacker said it’s important to appreciate military traditions.
“I think it’s important to be recognized for your service, whether you served six years or 30 years,” he said. “It’s important to recognize that everyone has an impact on the unit, whether it’s good or bad, everyone has an impact.”
Thacker said it’s also important to recognize the traditions of military service such as changes of command.
“Soldiers need to see the pomp and circumstance of military service,” Thacker said. “It’s an important part. Soldiers need to see the transition of command or responsibility.”
Thacker is appreciative of the sacrifices made by military families.
“My family has been very supportive of my career. I’ve missed a lot of important days in their lives and I’m thankful they understand,” Thacker said. “I’m also appreciative of the sacrifices of my parents. My brother and I were deployed at the same time, and I know it was hard on my parents having their only children deployed at the same time to southern Afghanistan.”
Thacker said he was proud to have worn the uniform and offered advice to anyone considering serving in the military.
“I’m proud of my service and am glad I did it. A lot of things in my life I’ve done has been because of the military,” Thacker said. “For anyone considering serving in the military, I tell them to keep an open mind. They are going to see different things and meet different people. Some of those people you may not care for, but if you work as a team it has great benefits.”
Thacker, who officially retires Aug. 31, sums up his own desire to serve as an answer to one question.
“Why do you want to wear a uniform?” he asked. “For me it’s simple, I’m a patriot and I took an oath to defend our nation no matter the sacrifices.”