PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Nate Weber still speaks about his friend in the present tense.
“He’s one of the smartest guys I know,” said the Army Green Beret who is also competing for Team USA in four-man bobsled this weekend.
“He’s someone I think about a lot.”
He’s describing one of his fellow soldiers, Adam Thomas, who he met early in 2016. Thomas was fresh out of Special Forces qualification school and he joined Company B, 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group. Weber was already a senior medic, but he found he looked up to Thomas in some ways.
“He had an effect on people,” Weber says. “Even if you just met him, you felt he was one of your best friends.”
Weber and Thomas got along well. There’s really no choice when you’re deployed in a place like Afghanistan, fighting against ISIS. But the bond was forged quickly. Weber was known as “the bobsled guy” for his side passion. Thomas was originally from Minnesota, and he had been in the Army since 2008. It was his third deployment. He had served in Iraq and Afghanistan once before. He was good at his job but he also had a good spirit about him. He was a happy guy.
Thomas went out on patrol in the Achin district of Nangarhar province in October of 2016 when Weber heard a squawk on the radio: “Eagle down.” Weber was in between restocking runs when it happened. Several long minutes later, he found out who was hurt. Thomas had stepped on an IED. He lost both of his legs. His teammates rushed to save him, but there was so much blood loss. Too much.
A moment later, Weber heard another voice on the radio: “Eagle KIA.”
He struggles to get those words out.
“It is not something you ever want to hear,” he says.
Thomas was the first combat fatality in the fight against ISIS in Afghanistan. He was 31.
Weber would be the one to take him home.
“You at that point need to be there and be strong for his teammates, the guys who are out there on the ground with him when it happened,” Weber says. “You need to be strong for his family, for everyone on the chain of command. You just do it. It’s something you don’t need to be asked to do. It’s something you know you have to do.”
Weber greeted his fallen friend when his body arrived by Medevac. He then accompanied Thomas to the military transport plane back to the U.S. It would just be Weber, Thomas and the pilots.
“It was a very lonely, emotional experience,” Weber says. “You’re by yourself the whole time. There are a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings that come over you. ‘Did I know him well enough?’ ‘Did I do a good job at this?’ You just want to make sure you’re the right person, that you’re honoring this person who sacrificed everything for you and everyone back here.”
When he got tired as the plane traveled across the ocean, Weber got out his sleeping bag and laid it down next to his friend’s coffin. He didn’t want to leave him even for a moment.
They arrived in the U.S. and Weber’s last duty on the trip was to meet with the family. He couldn’t come up with any words that captured his feelings or the loss. He simply gave Thomas’ wife a hug.
“Hopefully that was OK with him,” he says. “It’s something that’s indescribably hard to do.”
Weber stands at the top of a mountain as he says this. It’s been more than a year now, but it’s still painful.
“I wasn’t as good of a friend as the people on his team every day on deployment,” Weber says. “I’m glad I did it for them so one of those guys didn’t have to do it. I can’t imagine one of them having to do it.”
Weber is an intense guy. You kind of have to be in order to serve as a Green Beret. And then you also have to be in order to do this sport. One of Weber’s teammates, Sam McGuffie, calls him a “beast.” But Weber is perpetually humble. He wants to do his best for his family, his team, his country, and for Adam.
Being here is part of that. Weber knows a lot gets written about American athletes at the Olympics – their background, their stories, their sacrifices. He himself has been written about, and some of the publicity has helped him bring his two daughters over to watch him compete. Americans lost in battle don’t usually get the same volume of coverage. So even after a disappointing couple of heats on Saturday, Weber spends a few extra minutes away from his family to tell the story of the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Green Beret who was lost while supporting Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. This Olympics isn’t just about him, in his mind. It’s about all who serve.
Nate Weber still speaks of Adam Thomas in the present tense. Because in his mind, Adam is up on this mountain with him.
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