How Country Star, Former Army Ranger Keni Thomas Found Passion After Service
Keni Thomas didn’t think twice about whether to reenlist in the days following 9/11. It had been three years since he left the Army Rangers, but Thomas felt the same call to the fight that he had when he’d first enlisted a decade earlier. He was willing to sacrifice his career as a country music artist on the rise to get a different kind of band back together. Thomas had all but packed his bags when another call came.
Fellow Ranger Jeff Struecker had fought alongside Thomas in the Battle of Mogadishu, running and gunning through the Somali streets in one of the best-known special operations conflicts in modern history. Struecker became a pastor, swapping his rifle and body armor for the Bible, after leaving the Army. He reached out to Thomas after word got around that Thomas was planning to re-up with the Rangers.
“He called and said, ‘Look man, whether you like it or not, you’re the voice of Task Force Ranger. Because you’re out there in the public spotlight, and we know who you are. And so you better think of what you’re going to say,’” Thomas recalled.
“And you better think about it fast,” Struecker told him. “Because you have an opportunity, Keni, to do more with your music and a song than I can do with a lifetime full of sermons. You’re going to be able to reach a lot of people, so figure out what your message is going to be.”
When Coffee or Die Magazine asked Thomas what that message was, he paused and then started listing off his experiences in hopes of finding the answer. On top of his country music career, Thomas makes his living as a motivational speaker while running a military leadership course on a ranch in Wyoming. And he and his wife have two young boys.
After reflecting on his multiple careers, Thomas said his message to others might be to live in the now, to understand and appreciate the present.
Five years ago, Thomas took off on a surf trip to Costa Rica. Every day, he would paddle out and wait for the waves to come. Between sets, his mind would wander, reliving one experience after another and contemplating his life’s decisions, drifting in the world of what ifs.
But when a wave inevitably came, he said, the nonsense dissipated. “Your mind starts thinking all these different things, but as soon as the wave comes, you’re just in the now,” Thomas explained. “You catch it, you ride it, you live that little high for a second, and you go paddle back out.”
The idea of focusing on the present is something that should resonate with other veterans, Thomas said, especially those struggling to transition from military to civilian life. And for those who experienced loss, living in the present honors friends who never made it home in a fuller, more affirming way than drowning in grief.
“When you make it out of something — where others did not — you will spend the rest of your life thanking the people who are on your left and your right,” Thomas said. “But also, [there’s] a choice. I can live [with guilt] for being here, or I can go out there and honor those guys and girls that we lost and be present and do something positive with my life.”
When Thomas takes the stage, he finds himself in a similar state of Zen. A 90-minute set passes by in what seems like an instant, and Thomas could swear he played just a handful of songs.
Focusing on the present, Thomas believes, allows you to see clearly how what is important to you changes over time. In his 20s, what was most important to Thomas was being a good Ranger. After the Army, it was connecting with an audience from on stage. Eventually it became inspiring others as a motivational speaker and leadership counselor. And now it’s being there for his two kids.
“Without a doubt, the closest to my heart right now is taking on the role as a father,” Thomas said. “That’s a whole other gig, you know? My kids are 5 and 2, so I’m just starting to figure it out.”
In the past, when veterans would approach him after shows, they asked Thomas how he found another purpose after service and how he navigated the transition from trigger-puller in the Rangers to country music star.
His love for music goes back to singing in the choir in the fourth grade. He stuck with it through high school and kept that passion burning while serving in the military. But not everyone has a hobby or interest that dates back to grade school.
“I wouldn’t tell [them], ‘Go follow your passion,’ because those people don’t know what their passion is,” Thomas said. “It’s like, ‘Go follow something, and it will become your passion.’”
This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine as “Positive Vibes.”