One of the faces of Minnesota conservatism: Dave Thul

Dave Thul
Courtesy of Dave Thul
Sgt. Dave Thul of Owatonna, Minn., on duty in Iraq with the Minnesota Army National Guard.

Racing down a highway in northern Iraq at the head of a convoy of 100 tankers barreling toward the Jordanian border is a far cry from a race for the Owatonna City Council, but Dave Thul seems to have made the transition with relative ease — and inordinate aplomb.

In fact, Thul, 37, who has spent most of his adult years in the uniform of the Minnesota Army National Guard, first in Kosovo and then in Iraq, finds the issues of city growth, storm drains and a water park considerably more compelling these days than armored vehicles and grenade launchers.

And while he still reports once a month for duty at the local armory, he finds political activism — as co-chairman of the Steele County Republican Party, and organizer of an anti-tax Tea Party in Owatonna that attracted 200 people — more rewarding.

Chalk the change up to experience, and a hard-won maturity that surpasses his age.

Explosion in Iraq
He walks with a crutch, a reminder, if one were ever needed, of his service in Iraq. Yet Thul seems almost embarrassed about it.

 “The VA insists I use the crutch,” he said, adding quickly: “The injury is non-combat related. I probably jumped off my ASV one too many times with all the body armor on. It wrenched my knee.”

An ASV, or M1117 Armored Service Vehicle, is a four-wheel-drive, lightly armored vehicle mounting a turret with a Mark-19 grenade launcher and a .50-caliber machine gun. The fact that is it wheeled, rather than tracked, makes it swift and highly maneuverable — ideal for the work in which Thul and his unit were engaged.

As a sergeant (E5) in First Battalion, 133rd Regiment of Minnesota’s own 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division, Thul was commander of one of four ASVs taking point — leading the way, in laymen’s terms — about 10 to 15 miles in front of a convoy of about 130 civilian tankers and 35 military vehicles heading at top speed from Al Asad, Iraq, to the Jordanian border. It was July 31, 2006.

The road was good, weather excellent (if demonically hot), potential problems seemed few, and the convoy was making excellent time. Thul’s training kept him on constant alert. Eyes always surveying the highway and shoulder ahead with binoculars, he suddenly spotted slim wooden “aiming stakes” alongside the highway.

He barked an order and the ASV’s driver hit the breaks.

Seconds later an IED detonated, a huge explosion that “sprayed our vehicle pretty good with shrapnel. None of it penetrated the vehicle; the armor did its job.”

“There were no casualties, just some headaches and concussions from the blast,” he said quietly, a distant look in his eyes. “I remember the time exactly. It was 3:47 p.m.”

Joined on impulse
The distance between Iraq and Owatonna, where Thul lives with his wife, Heather, and their two children, Alex, 9, and Cassie, 6, cannot be measured in miles alone. The signposts of a man’s life tell different stories, offer different measurements.

Thul, who was born in St. Paul and reared in Minnetonka, joined the Minnesota Army National Guard on an impulse. “I suppose it would be great to say I was patriotic and wanted to serve my country,” he said, but the truth was more prosaic.

Deciding against enrolling in college immediately after graduating from Minnetonka High School, Thul drifted for a while among low-paying jobs. A shared townhouse and squabbling roommates resulted in the kind of domestic implosion that, like a sudden summer squall, leaves everyone scrambling for a place to take shelter.

“I happened to pass by a National Guard recruiting office one day as I was trying to figure out where I was going to live, what I was going to do with my life. The Army was something I had always thought about but never really seriously considered, but it actually worked out well. Basic training not only gave me four months of discipline, which was sorely lacking at that point in my life, but also four months of making a salary and not being able to spend very much.

“I was able to come home to Minnesota after basic, get an apartment, get a job and turn my life around.”

In October 2005, with the war in Iraq well on its way toward reaching an unprecedented crescendo of violence, not only for Iraqis but for U.S. military personnel, Thul’s Guard unit was activated. After deployment training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, he and his unit flew into Iraq in March 2006.

“Most of the convoys we safeguarded were fuel,” he said, “Ironically, on one run we brought back a shipment of sand. The thing is that the sand found in the Iraqi desert is not good for making cement, so it is imported from Jordan. But the irony of hauling trucks full of sand through the Iraqi desert always makes me chuckle.”

With his tour of duty scheduled to end in April 2007, Thul’s unit was extended for an additional 120 days as part of Iraq commander Gen. David Patraeus’ surge. The roadside bomb he and his crew survived that July was a “life-changing event,” he said.

Change in life
Iraq proved to be the incubator for many changes in Thul’s life. For one thing, he’s enrolled in American Military University, a fully accredited on-line institution where he’s majoring in history. The course study is intense and time-consuming, he said, and he misses the face-to-face interaction with instructors and fellow students he’d enjoy at a “bricks-and-mortar” college. He’s considering transferring to a local school to finish his degree.

And Iraq also engendered a serious interest in politics.

“I always paid attention to politics,” he said, “but all of a sudden I was in the midst of the biggest news story. I started getting active in politics because in late 2006 it looked like we could win the war militarily but lose it politically because of lack of support back home.”

When asked what he meant by lack of support, he pointed to the statement of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in which the Nevada Democrat declared that “the war is lost.”

“That really set me and my guys off,” he said. “Reid galvanized me politically.”

That spark manifested itself in a keen and growing interest in U.S. politics. In his spare time he began surfing the Internet, avidly reading political news and searching out blogs with varying points of view. That led inevitably to setting up his own blog in January 2007 — Foreign and Domestic.

“I named it that because here I swore to uphold the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” he said, “and I came to believe that many of those at home who opposed our mission in Iraq had similar goals to the enemy we were fighting. It was something to which I really took offense.” 

In May 2006, Thul sent a message to Powerline, the iconic conservative web site in the Twin Cities, which had been reviewing conservative books. He asked if Powerline would send books to the troops in Iraq after they had been read. The request was posted on Powerline, and the result was astonishing.

“I ended up getting 600 to 700 packages of books and conservative magazines from people all across the [United States],” Thul said. “It was amazing. We would pass the books and mags out to other troops as we traveled around. I called it our Powerline Library. It was a huge hit.”

Thul said the first time he really considered himself to be an “activist” was last year during the protests at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. He and other local conservative bloggers marshaled counter-demonstrations that were, he admitted, puny compared to the thousands of left-wingers who filled the streets of the capital.

“I had never done anything like that in my life,” he said. “The extremes among the anti-war protesters was interesting. Some of them were quite reasonable and argued their positions well, but others spewed rage and obscenities at you for daring to have a different message.”

It was an eye-opener, and propelled him into organized politics.

Thul up to that point resolutely considered himself an independent. But, he said, “if you’re an independent, you’re outside the process. It’s the party process where the candidates get selected. If you’re an independent sitting on the outside, you don’t have a say in who the candidates are.”

He cast his lot with the GOP.

Turning to an issue that has increasing immediacy, he said he worries about the charges that those who oppose President Obama’s policies are inherently racist.

“I am happy that we have an African-American in the Oval Office,” Thul said. “Not only does it disprove the notion that a black man can’t get ahead, it finally brings the country to the point where we should be at the endgame of racial politics. If we can elect a black man, there is now nothing that a minority cannot do.

“I shy away from looking at people as members of groups, minority or otherwise. I have always looked at a person and judged his or her actions, intents, their core values. A person’s actions speak more to me than the color of their skin, or their heritage. It’s what they do that says who they are.”

That, one suspects, is how he would want others to judge him, too.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/21/2009 - 10:10 am.

    Well, Sgt. Thul had me going for awhile with his professed rejection of extremist views and apparent thoughtfulness. Then he said this:

    “and I came to believe that many of those at home who opposed our mission in Iraq had similar goals to the enemy we were fighting. It was something to which I really took offense.”

    I really take offense to that. Our enemy wishes no less than the defeat and destruction of the United States. To suggest that Americans opposed to the war want the same thing is, well, extreme. Not to mention unoriginal – just more of the same we’ve heard from the Right since the Iraq war began. “Support the war or you’re a traitor.” It’s tedious to have to point out that, both constitutionally and morally, one can support the troops, but oppose the war, and still be a loyal American.

    This story clearly illustrates that both parties are contaminated by extremists and zealots and, sadly, offers no evidence that this is going to change. The behavior that Sgt. Thul found to be offensive on the part of some of the Convention protesters is currently on display by the anti-Obama forces. If Senator Reed’s statement, which undoubtedly hurt our troops, is unacceptable, then so is that of Minority Leader John Boehner, when he says that the purpose of the opposition to health care reform is to “break Obama”. Not to overlook Rep. Joe “You Lie” Wilson. One might even call them “extreme”.

    Both sides need to stop the shouting and name-calling, start listening, and resurrect the concept of politics as the art of compromise. It’s tempting to yearn for a third way, but any third party that achieved some actual success would quickly become contaminated as well.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/21/2009 - 03:55 pm.

    I’m sick of the right-wingers defining patriotism exclusively in terms of unquestioning support for military action and external signs such as waving the flag.

    Has it never occurred to them that those of us who criticize the status quo in both domestic and foreign policy are also patriots, in that we believe that this country needs to take care of business at home?

  3. Submitted by Wes Davey on 09/21/2009 - 04:02 pm.

    The author – probably not an Army veteran – leaves the reader with questions in this poorly written article.

    Since this is basically free advertising for Sgt. Thul’s bid for the Owatonna city council, the author should have at least listed Thul’s qualifications for that office – such as what jobs he’s had that would give him the skills to help govern Owatonna (even listing his MOS’s held in the Guard would have helped).

    The author wrote that Thul has “spent most of his adult years in the uniform”; why not say exactly how many years he’s served? Most of his adult life would imply at least 10-15 years or so of service given his age of 37. But that makes little sense if the author has Thul’s rank correct – Sgt. E-5, a low rank for having served that long. Either the time in service or the rank should have been explained better.

    Assuming that there is some accuracy to the rest of the article, was Thul not offended by how Bush ran the war? Thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives were lost because of Bush’s complete ineptitude as CinC and Rumsfeld’s complete ineptitude as SecDef – yet that apparently did not concern Thul.

    As a conservative Republican, is Thul also not concerned/appalled that the entire cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being passed off to our children and grandchildren to pay? Republicans did this with supplemental war funding bill throughout the Bush administration, and now the Democrats are doing the same under Obama. What we really need are politicians with a sense of fiscal responsibility, a scare commodity in both parties right now.

  4. Submitted by John Moses on 09/22/2009 - 09:16 am.

    I am in total agreement with Sgt. Thul. There are many domestic enemies of our Constitution and way of life. A great deal of them are Democrat politicians. More power to conservative men like Sgt. Thul.

    And thank you to Mr.Bonafield for bringing people like him to our attention. I pray that socialist jerks like Obama’s Communications Czar Mark Lloyd doesn’t figure out a way to silence honest conservative voices like his.

  5. Submitted by Tim Walker on 09/23/2009 - 08:11 am.

    Lance and Karen make excellent points.

    I, too, am sick and tired of being called unpatriotic simply because I disagreed with the sitting president when he declared this war.

    McCarthyism is alive and well, folks, and we need to be diligent in fighting it.

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