When U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Reginald Truss tries explaining how his once scrawny and painfully shy 8-year-old "little brother" grew into the strapping young man who fights for his country overseas, he reaches for a stack of photographs.
"You can't describe it, you have to see it," says the 42-year-old Army Reservist and volunteer mentor in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northwestern Ohio.
One photo near the top shows a young Redus Thomas sitting cross-legged on the carpet of Major Truss' West Toledo home playing board games. He was 12 at the time, but Major Truss remarks that Redus was small enough to pass for 9 or 10.
In another, Redus sits enthralled by a television screen while holding a video-game controller. Major Truss tells how the boy was so shy at that age he could barely order food at a restaurant. He refused to look the waiter in the eye and would bashfully turn away and whisper to Major Truss or his wife at the time, Julie, to order for him.
Halfway through the pile of photos, the timid grins disappear.
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The turning point comes in a set of images from Redus' graduation from Army basic training in 1999 at Fort Jackson, S.C., between his junior and senior years at Woodward High School. The 17-year-old stands tall in green fatigues and garrison cap, flashing smiles of self-confidence for the camera.
By this time, Redus Thomas has become a member of the same Army Reserve unit, the 983rd Engineering Battalion in Monclova Township, to which Major Truss belonged at the time. Major Truss remembers that hot September afternoon as the first time he realized his "little brother" had become a man.
"I hardly recognized him - he was a totally different person," re-called Major Truss, who attended the event with members of Redus' family. "My tears started flowing, and I just could not stop crying. I was so proud of that man."
Both he and Redus, who is now known as Sergeant Thomas, are to be honored with a heroes' welcome Sept. 18 during the Big Brothers/Big Sisters annual Mentor Awards reception. The two are scheduled to speak about how the mentorship program changed their lives for the better, and how there is a critical need in the program for more male-mentor volunteers.
More than 150 area youths are waiting for adult mentors, according to Shelly McCarty, vice-president of programs for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northwestern Ohio. The majority are boys, because there are about twice as many female volunteers as there are males, she said.
When Redus was 8, his mother, Darthal Thomas, who never married Redus' father, signed him up for Big Brothers with the hope that he would gain a male role model.
Major Truss, who was unmarried at the time, began mentoring Redus and another Toledo youth, Derek Meyers.
"I was raised by both of my parents and I thought they did an excellent job with me, and I wanted to give back to the community by helping at-risk kids," he said.
Although Major Truss and Redus come from different home-life backgrounds, they shared some ethnic background: Major Truss' mother was Japanese, as was Redus' maternal grandmother; both women had been friends in Toledo.
Major Truss hung out once a week with the boys when the mentorship started, watching movies, playing catch, or going to the mall together. As Redus got older, he spent more time with Major Truss and his family and lived at their West Toledo home during summer months.
"I didn't come from a troubled home," Sergeant Thomas, now 25, said in a phone interview from Highland, Ind., where he is an Army recruiter and lives with his wife, Jessica, his high-school sweetheart. "It was just that I lived with all women," he said, and Major Truss could provide a more disciplined environment.
So when Redus entered high school, he asked to live with the Trusses year-round.
"It worked out great," said Major Truss, who works as a senior operations manager for the U.S. Postal Service in Detroit. "Redus had supervision, he saw how a family unit worked full time, and he helped out around the house."
Redus also observed how Major Truss had balanced life around family, his career, mentorships, and military service.
"When I got a little older I thought, 'Well, I could follow in his footsteps.' [The Army] seemed like it did him a lot of good," Sergeant Thomas said.
Photographs from after his basic training often show desert in the background. Sergeant Thomas was called up for two nearly year-long deployments to Iraq, the first starting in May, 2003, then another that began in December, 2004, he said.
A bit of role reversal occurred in their relationship following Sergeant Thomas' first deployment, Major Truss said. The major's new unit, the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion in Whitehall, Ohio, was going to Afghanistan, and he had never before been deployed overseas.
So the younger man bestowed war advice to the older mentor, sharing what it's like to live in a battle zone, how to spot roadside bombs, and what to do to prevent weapons from jamming during firefights.
"He was all of the sudden my mentor," Major Truss recalled.
The photographs near the stack's bottom are the painful ones. There is one of Gary "Andy" Eckert, Sergeant Thomas' comrade and best friend, shortly before the 24-year-old from Sylvania was killed in Iraq May 8, 2005, after his convoy vehicle struck a roadside bomb.
Next are the photos, taken five months later, of a melted Humvee.
"You look at that and you figure, 'How did anybody survive?'•" Major Truss said.
Sergeant Thomas and three fellow soldiers were inside when their Humvee struck a roadside bomb. The explosion's force threw Sergeant Thomas from the vehicle and momentarily knocked him unconscious.
Yet he managed to return to the wreckage and pull two comrades to safety: Sgt. Dewight Supplee of Toledo and Sgt. Matthew Kading of Madison, Wis.
Sergeant Supplee survived the ordeal with a broken neck, back, and leg, and is now home. But Sergeant Kading later died of his injuries, and another passenger, Spc. Kendall Frederick, of Randallstown, Md., could not be rescued and also perished.
For his courage under fire, Sergeant Thomas has been nominated for the Army's Bronze Star Medal with a Valor device. Major Truss received a Bronze Star for his own service in Afghanistan - but without the Valor device, which notes exceptional bravery.
"Just to be nominated for that is an achievement," Major Truss said. "The things that he experienced [in Iraq] were things that I always wondered about as a soldier. And he lived all that, and he saved these guys without even thinking about it."
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