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Under fire in Iraq

Parents anguish over photograph showing their son dodging bullets in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf

Scott Thomas has just two words to describe his reaction to a photo of his son that ran nationwide in Time magazine.

Heart wrenching.

The photo in the Aug. 30 edition shows a wide-eyed Shad Thomas, 22, lying on the ground, clutching his weapon as he takes cover from enemy fire during a battle in Najaf.

It was taken Aug. 20 as U.S. forces fought members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army near a holy shrine in Najaf. (Related story, Page 3B.)

— I'm drawn to (the photo), but it's hard to look at, said the Medford father. It's a memory we'll be happy to forget. ... It hurts to see him like that.

A 2001 graduate of North Medford High School, Shad had no idea he would be sent into battle when he signed up for the Oregon Army National Guard nearly three years ago.

Throughout childhood, Shad never even mentioned an interest in joining the armed forces, his father said.

But after enrolling at Oregon State University, Shad needed to find a way to pay for his education. Military recruiters said his country would be able to help out, in exchange for six years of service with the National Guard.

He joined to avoid the big debt of college, Scott said. It was a good plan for awhile, but it soon became clear that he would be expected to do more than stay here and be a National Guard soldier.

After combat training in Texas and Louisiana, the Army specialist was sent to Iraq in April, along with others from the Cottage Grove-based 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry.

While Shad never expected to find himself fighting in a war, his parents said he did not complain when called to serve his country overseas.

When it happened, he stepped up and accepted the responsibility, said Shad's mother, Rebecca Thomas. We're very proud of the stand he's taken. He's doing what he knows is right.

Shad's parents want nothing more than to have their son back in Oregon. But they say they have no choice but to support the conflict in Iraq.

You could ask 100 parents and they would all tell you they don't want their child there, Scott said. But to be anything less than supportive would be hanging him out to dry.

According to a July article from the Oregonian newspaper, 1,300 Oregon National Guard troops will be stationed in Iraq by fall.

The Thomases speak to Shad periodically, and say he wants it known that many Iraqis are behind the U.S. military's effort in their country.

He says the Iraqis are really nice folks, and when something happens to a (U.S.) soldier, Iraqi people are crying for them, Scott said. Those are people who have nothing, and just want to have a voice, without having to fear being killed. ... One of the first comments he made to me was, 'I wasn't sure what I was coming here for, but now I know my reason for being here.'

Shad, a three-sport athlete at North Medford who went to OSU to study chemistry, phoned his parents over the weekend to say he's still alive, Rebecca said. But since seeing the Time photo, which also has appeared in other publications, the family has had a difficult time.

We haven't slept well in three or four days, Rebecca said. Some people are excited to see (the photo). Others, like us, are scared.

Shad might be able to return to Medford for a short break in November, and could be out of Iraq by next spring. But his parents aren't counting on it.

We're sure praying that's the case, Scott said. When he does come back (for a break), the hard part will be putting him back on the airplane.

Reach reporter Jack Moran at 776-4459, or e-mail .