Coming from a small town right out of high school in 2007, Allison Swaney Thomas nearly didn’t stay at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School in Colorado.
After her parents dropped her off, she said she was ready to go back to Seymour with them.
Now looking back, though, she’s glad she stayed because she completed the Air Force Academy and now has moved to the U.S. Space Force.
“Had I not stayed and gotten out of my comfort zone, I don’t know where I would be. I don’t know what I would be doing,” the 33-year-old said. “So just don’t be afraid to take that first step and see what else is out there in the world.”
As a bonus, while serving in the Air Force, she met the man who became her husband, D.J. Thomas, while serving in the Air Force.
“I was very, I’ll say, reserved as a kid really through high school, and some days, I honestly don’t even know how I made it through the Air Force Academy,” Allison said.
“I am a completely different person than I was when I graduated high school,” she said. “I definitely never thought that I would be where I am today. I think initially, I thought that maybe I would just do my five years after the academy and then get out and move back home. Now, here I am third in charge of a region for one of our commissioning forces. And bonus, I met my husband.”
Allison has now served in the military for 11 years, while D.J. has served for 15.
After graduating from Seymour High School in 2007, Allison went through the prep school and then completed the Air Force Academy in 2012, earning a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and doing four years of military training.
D.J., an Alabama native, completed the ROTC program at Auburn University and went to the Air Force Academy on an ROTC scholarship and earned a history degree.
D.J. said he was drawn to the Air Force after visiting the academy in Colorado Springs on a Boy Scouts trip in middle school.
“We went and visited the chapel and saw the cadets marching in the summer, and I told the Scout leaders who were with us, who I’ve known all my life, that I was going to do that one day and be in the Air Force, and here I am how many ever years later,” he said.
In 2012, fresh out of the academy, Allison moved to Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle and worked for the 20th Space Control Squadron.
“It’s a ground-based radar,” she said. “Basically, we track objects in space with this radar. Then we send data out to various organizations, and they take that data and use it as they will to see if there are new objects in space. Down there, we tracked foreign and domestic launches. Like for foreign launches, see what other people are putting in space and just monitor to make sure that our own assets aren’t being impacted.”
She did that for three years, starting as a crew commander and working up to assistant flight commander.
“We always had someone at the radar 24/7, 365, so I built that schedule, making sure that people were getting their rest time, not flipping shifts incorrectly,” she said of her latter job. “Then I was also an instructor down there, instructing new lieutenants and airmen that came into the unit.”
In 2015, she moved back to Colorado and served with the 22nd Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base. That’s considered the mothership of satellite operations, and she started as a network crew commander and later became flight commander. While there, she met D.J.
“He was already stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, and then when I came out to Schriever, we met. He was working an issue for the radar I had come from. I was over visiting with a friend, and (D.J.) pulled me in to ask some questions, and then we had a friend kind of play matchmaker,” Allison said.
They married in 2017.
From 2018 to 2020, she went over to the 21st Operations Support Squadron at Peterson that oversees all of the ground-based radars around the country.
“We worked with all of those radars for training,” Allison said. “I also dealt with quite a few personnel issues with some of my airmen, helping them through some tough situations.”
D.J. said he began his Air Force career as a nuclear launch officer at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. He became a flight commander and later left as assistant director of operations of a nuclear launch squadron.
Since leaving there, he has done electromagnetic warfare, including 2012 to 2016 at Peterson, a year in Korea and then returning to Peterson. He served as director of operations for the 16th Space Control Squadron from 2018 to 2020.
Since last summer, Allison and D.J. have been in the U.S. Space Force.
The newest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces was established Dec. 20, 2019, with enactment of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, according to spaceforce.mil. Its mission is to organize, train and equip space forces to protect United States and allied interests in space and provide space capabilities to the joint force.
Allison and D.J. now both hold the rank of major, but D.J. will soon find out about his promotion to the second-highest rank, lieutenant colonel.
Allison is director of operations for the Northwest Region of Air Force ROTC, and D.J. is commander of the 26th Cadet Squadron at the Air Force Academy. Both are based in Colorado Springs.
In her capacity, Allison oversees 34 university attachments for ROTC, spanning from Anchorage, Alaska, to Indiana State University. She works with their commanders on all things involving cadets.
In his capacity, D.J. is in charge of 103 cadets and two enlisted personnel in the squadron.
When asked how much longer they want to be involved in the military, Allison said 20 years is considered a career and they could retire.
“We joke once you make it past 10 years, you’re too far committed,” she said. “For both of us, we’ll do at least 20 years before looking at retiring out.”
Both said the military has shaped them into the people they are today.
“It has really helped me break out of my shell just being reserved to being a leader and being able to help people work through their own issues, hopefully inspiring the younger generations,” Allison said. “I had a lot of stories from my time at the Air Force Academy. I had a lot of hard times there, and so I try to use my experiences at the academy and in my active duty career to hopefully inspire younger airmen and guardians.”
D.J. said the military has given him an opportunity to tap into and hone the skill sets he worked to develop while growing up in life. A lot of things he did growing up, including Boy Scouts, were very leadership-centric, and he said the military has given him an opportunity to capitalize on them.
“A lot of people invested in me, from my parents to friends to different teachers, etc.,” he said. “Those leadership skill sets and the military have really given me that opportunity to exercise that investment … and hopefully now be able to give back to those younger than me and invest in them the way family members and those who surrounded me invested in me growing up.”
Given their accomplishments in the military, the Thomases hope they inspire others.
“I just would want people to know whether you stay where you grow up or you decide to branch out and go somewhere else, there’s so much more to life than you may ever realize, so don’t be scared to take that first step and be going outside your comfort zone,” Allison said.
“After taking that first step, don’t let roadblocks stop you,” D.J. said. “You can still achieve whatever your dreams or goals are, no matter what happens. It may be a different pathway. That’s OK. Don’t let anyone tell you your pathway is the wrong pathway. It’s your pathway. Own it and make it happen.”