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70 years of air power: One family's service

A grandfather, a young woman and her father stand together holding a photo of a young service member.

From left, retired Chief Master Sgt. Gary Thomas, Senior Airman Karie Thomas, 436th Aerospace Medicine Squadron Public Health technician at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, and Maj. Earl Thomas, 19th Medical Group Public Health flight commander, celebrate the 70th Air Force anniversary at the Air Force Ball, Sept. 16, 2017. The three honored their Air Force heritage and their relative, retired Master Sgt. Fred Thomas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Grace Nichols)

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE, Ark. --

The need for unified airpower forged the foundation for the Air Force during World War II. Since its conception, Airmen have served in every major conflict and war requiring air support.

This history is shared by one family in particular.

Faithful to a Proud Heritage

The demands of World War II prompted many people to take up arms. Retired Master Sgt. Fred Thomas joined their ranks, serving as a gunner in the Army Air Corps, later transitioning into the Air Force as aircrew.

His son, retired Chief Master Sgt. Gary Thomas, followed in his footsteps and became a flight simulator instructor and served in the Air Force Senior Enlisted Council. He pioneered many changes, including improving housing for unaccompanied Airmen.

The call to serve, as well as receiving orders to live in Iceland, led Gary to his wife, Rebecca, who served in the Air Force as a staff sergeant in avionics.

"Our family has been on the greatest team in the world since 1947," Gary said. "Growing up, I knew without a shadow of a doubt I would join the Air Force."

Tradition of Honor

This Air Force family tree grew when they gave birth to their son, Earl.

"Being in the Air Force was something my father was proud of, and I knew I wanted to be part of it early on," said Maj. Earl Thomas, 19th Medical Group Public Health flight commander.

Earl married and had two children, Karie and Matthew.

No one would have blamed the Thomas' for ending their military journey; they had collectively served 81 years in the Air Force. For a while, it looked like the last member serving would be Earl; then his daughter had a change of heart.

"I wanted to stay in one place and settle down," said Senior Airman Karie Thomas, 436th Aerospace Medicine Squadron Public Health technician at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. "I was working as a waitress and paying for college. I literally woke up one day and said, 'I want more for my life.' So I decided the Air Force was the way to go."

Legacy of Valor

An assignment to Dover AFB, Delaware, challenged Karie to spread her own wings.

"It's humbling to be able to serve in the same branch as my family," Karie said. "Before I was observing from the outside, but now I'm in the Air Force family and sharing the experience. It's an amazing tradition that we're part of."

Karie created her own experiences by making Senior Airmen Below-the-Zone and receiving the Air Force Sergeants Association Airman of the Year Award.

"I joined to be a part of something bigger than myself," Karie said. "Now all of us get to celebrate this tradition together by attending the 70th Air Force Anniversary Ball."

Gary, Earl and Karie gathered together in uniform during the event to celebrate their history for the first time since Karie's Basic Military Training graduation.

"This (is) the first time (we're) together and fully able to enjoy it and take it all in," Earl said. "My family heritage and the Air Force heritage is one and the same. I haven't known anything other than my Air Force family."