It was a Saturday at Walmart, and the store was jam-packed with people, a panorama of glistening chrome carts, never far from collision, in a surreal bumper car-like setting. Children were running and shrieking, and people were forcefully pushing their way through crowds with blatant disregard for those around them. Shawn Thomas finally made it to the checkout line as sweat was beading on his forehead. His heart was racing. It felt like it might pound right out of his chest. Breathing became an arduous task instead of an autonomic function. He had an overwhelming desire to leave. He was just about to abandon his cart, filled with groceries, when a four-legged miracle saved the day. “I was having a panic attack and was on the verge of hyperventilation. All of a sudden, Samba walked in front of me and leaned up against me. Instantaneously, everything was OK. She got me to forget about my situation. When you look down at her, you just want to pet her. I was petting and loving on her, and all that frustration was gone. It is a therapy you cannot get from any medication. She is able to draw you back into reality long enough for you to calm down.”
Samba, a 60-pound Doberman Pinscher, goes everywhere with Professor Thomas, who teaches government and history at Collin College’s Preston Ridge Campus in Frisco. She stayed in his room for a hospital visit after a surgery, and she loves the DART Rail and airplanes. “If we get into a crowd, she paces back and forth in front of me, so people cannot bump into me and startle me. If I were to have nightmares or a flashback, Samba knows what to do. I have a bad leg from my time in the Army, and she is trained to brace me if I were to fall. She can pick up my keys and pull the refrigerator door open, if I hang a rope from it,” Professor Thomas says.
Professor Thomas served in the Army for ten and a half years. During part of initial invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, he served as a Special Forces (Green Beret) engineer sergeant on an Operational Detachment Alpha Team, and his duties included using explosives to breech doors and other obstacles. In addition, he served in the 5th Special Forces Group (A). After serving in the military, Professor Thomas earned a bachelor of science in history and a master of science in political science from Texas A&M University-Commerce. “We came out of Iraq in 2004. I hurt my back jumping out of airplanes and carrying heavy loads. My surgeon said, ‘Your cool guy days are over.’ I have posttraumatic stress (PTS) and hypervigilance. I am always looking over my shoulder to see if anyone is going to hurt me. I still look at rooftops and windows every time I go outside. I have talked to other veterans, and they do the same thing,” Professor Thomas shares.
A Dog … in the Classroom?
According to Professor Thomas, having Samba in the classroom enriches the classroom experience. If a student is uncomfortable with Samba or has allergies, he works with the registrar’s office to help the student transfer into another class. The only real issue he had with his dog was that she found gum under the desks. “That,” he says with a chuckle, “has been resolved with dog treats.”
A father of two and grandfather, with a daughter pursuing a nursing degree and a son who plans to become a part of the Navy Sea Air Land Team (SEAL), Professor Thomas grew up in Flower Mound, Texas, but he currently resides in Rural Fannin County, on 14 acres, where he raises goats and enjoys solitude. A member of the Dallas chapter of the Special Forces Association, he is also a Phi Alpha Theta history honor society member. He says teaching is a natural fit for him because, as a Green Beret, he was a teacher and a warrior, but he will never forget what it was like to be a veteran and a student. “I want to give back and challenge my students. I believe it is important, as citizens, to be informed and understand our government and how we can effect change as individuals and groups. When I went back to college, I had two teenagers and a wife. I was worried about putting food on the table and paying bills. If you have been overseas and have not learned skills to manage PTS, it makes the college classroom more difficult. I always tell veterans in my classes that I am willing to talk with them after class. However, individuals have to want to seek help,” he says.
A former sergeant in the Army, Collin College student Garry Johnson says he had some tough experiences transitioning back into civilian life, and he enjoyed having a professor who served in the military. “I hit it off with just about anybody who has military experience. It is like an instant connection. Sometimes Professor Thomas talked about his experiences in the military and related it to what he was teaching. It made things more interesting. He does not pressure you about your military experience, but he is willing to go down that road with you if you want to talk. He is there for you,” Mr. Johnson shares.
In addition to the outdoors, Professor Thomas enjoys science fiction, comic books and the current television shows surrounding these fictitious heroes and heroines. He uses these interests as additional vehicles to connect with his students.
Professor Thomas describes his college colleagues as his new family, a relationship he takes very seriously. “Collin has become my team, my family of sorts. For someone like me, who lived and worked with a very special group of men as a Green Beret, I am humbled to call my military brothers and now my colleagues my team and family. Those are not words I use lightly or with just anyone. I speak from the heart, like the line from the Ballad of the Green Beret, by SSG Barry Sadler, goes, ‘I say what I mean and mean what I say.’ For me, teaching is an honor.”
Robert Tipps is a Frisco resident and Collin College student. He is pursuing a political science degree and has not served in the military. “It was pretty awesome having class with Samba. She takes your mind off things. One day, I had a long day at work before I came in, and I was stressing because I had a paper to finish. She sat down by me, and I petted her. It encouraged me. It was like Samba was saying, ‘Yes, you can do this.’ I feel like she was kind of rooting for me. I think everyone in my class felt the same way I did,” Mr. Tipps says.
Mr. Tipps says he really enjoys it when the college hosts Dog Days of Finals and brings in therapy dogs to help students reduce stress before exams. He says his classroom experience with Samba was even better. “I had dog days every day of the semester. If all professors had dogs, it would be awesome,” he shares. Professor Thomas and Samba could not agree more.