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College News

From the skies to the forests, this UK staff member and graduate always “Aims High”

From the skies to the forests, this UK staff member and graduate always “Aims High”

From the skies to the forests, this UK staff member and graduate always “Aims High”

Inspired by his family’s military careers, Billy Thomas’ transition from civilian to Air Force security specialist was not merely a career shift but a transformative experience that continues to shape his values and aspirations today.

Lexington, Ky.—

Billy Thomas' life has been a canvas of challenges and triumphs. From football fields to the arid deserts in the Gulf War, his journey reflects a relentless pursuit of purpose and growth. Inspired by his family’s military careers, Thomas’ transition from civilian to Air Force security specialist was not merely a career shift but a transformative experience that continues to shape his values and aspirations today. 

Originally hailing from Middlesboro in southeast Kentucky, where coal mines and military stories formed the backdrop of daily life, Thomas grappled with a decision that would alter his life's trajectory. 

“I'm either going to go to the military or the coal mine,” said Thomas, Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment staff member and Department of Forestry and National Resources senior extension associate. “I thought the military would give me a fresh start. I was familiar with it because of my family and I wanted to help protect our nation.” 

Thomas’ family stories, from several military branches, had ingrained in him a sense of discipline and honor. By the summer of 1989, he was deep into his Air Force training. As a security specialist during the Gulf War, Thomas was entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding bases and priority resources. These were high-pressure times, with the weight of his duty heavy on his shoulders, yet he thrived in this challenging environment. 

Billy Thomas
Photo provided by Billy Thomas.

Incirlik airbase in Turkey was particularly intense, with the chaos of Desert Shield and Desert Storm unfolding around him. However, these daunting experiences molded him into a more resilient individual. 

“As base guards, we were some of the only Air Force personnel allowed to carry weapons,” Thomas said. “I felt like I was doing my part and troops knew they could rely on our team if anything happened.” 

When he was reassigned to New Mexico’s Kirtland Air Force Base, the pull of home and Kentucky’s green lands began to tug at his heartstrings. After completing his tour of duty, having obtained rank as a sergeant during his four years in the military, Thomas made a pivotal decision. Albuquerque’s vast deserts, as beautiful as they were, couldn’t compare to Kentucky’s rolling hills. 

“I loved Albuquerque,” Thomas recounted. “It was beautiful and I loved the people. However, I really wanted to get back to Kentucky, so I finished up my tour of duty in the Air Force and moved to Lexington.” 

With a newfound clarity, Thomas returned home, where he found the college’s Forestry program. His journey didn't stop with just a bachelors in Forestry. His community connection and roots guided him to specialize in coal mine reclamation in his graduate work – a homage to his familial history. 

“Once I was back in Kentucky, I went to UK and received my degree. After my time in the military, I was one of the older students there. Some of my fellow classmates good naturedly called me ‘Uncle Billy’,” he laughed. “Afterwards, I pursued a masters in coal mine reclamation. I felt like it brought me full circle with my ties to forestry and the mines.” 

While transitioning from the Air Force skies to Kentucky forests might seem vast, Billy's military discipline seamlessly blended with his academic and professional pursuits. 

“The military enhanced my attention to detail, the ability to follow instructions, understanding what's required of a task and the importance of working together," he recalled. “This helped me excel, not only in my schoolwork, but also throughout my life and especially as an extension specialist.” 

After graduation, Thomas started his extension career as a county extension agent. He then took a job with the Kentucky Division of Forestry before finding his way back to UK in 2005, where he started his current extension position. 

Thomas said his time in the Air Force taught him sacrifice, resilience, purpose and the importance of teamwork.  

“The military made me understand that I can accomplish what I set my mind to. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that experience.” 

UK has a history of supporting veterans. In 2015, the university opened the Veteran Resource Center (VRC) which provides scholarships and other programs for military veterans, assisting them in the transfer to civilian life, along with their extended families. 

“These extraordinary and diverse people, aged 18 to 65 and beyond, gather at the VRC to share their life experiences and access a wide range of resources and support,” said director Greg Judd, himself an Army and Air Force veteran. “Our main goal is to help military-connected students succeed in their careers. We offer the tools, guidance and opportunities to succeed in civilian life and their fields. We are creating a vibrant community that values their diverse backgrounds and experiences, helping them reach their full potential and leaving a legacy after military service.” 

To assist veterans like Thomas receive university guidance, visit or go to and type "Veteran Resource Center" in the search box. 

The organization was recently given the 2022-2023 Bronze Level Military Friendly School and Military Friendly Spouse School recognition

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The Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment is an Equal Opportunity Organization with respect to education and employment and authorization to provide research, education information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to economic or social status and will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, creed, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, marital status, genetic information, age, veteran status, physical or mental disability or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity.   

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