While deployed this past year in Kuwait as a colonel in the Alabama National Guard, Central High School principal Tommy Vickers still was able to address his son's football team during the Phenix City Intermediate School 2013 football banquet, which celebrated an undefeated season.
"I believe you have the potential to win a state championship one day for our Central High School Red Devils," Vickers said via video. "It will require you to be leaders, it will require you to have self-discipline, and it will require you to be committed."
That's a fitting description of the qualities Vickers has needed to serve his country and community at the same time.
Monday was the first day of classes for Phenix City students and staff after the Christmas break, but it was Vickers' first day at all during this school year. He thanked the district's administration and board, Central's staff, his family, church and community for allowing him to follow his dual allegiance.
"You've got a huge support system that makes this work," he said. "Without those things, it's probably not doable."
While in Kuwait, he was chief of staff for the 135th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, in charge of several thousand soldiers and contractors. His unit was responsible for all U.S. logistics in the Middle East, such as personnel, equipment, food and supplies.
This wasn't the first time Vickers, a Dothan, Ala., native and 1992 Auburn University graduate, deployed in the middle of his 21-year Central High career. The former algebra teacher was an assistant principal and assistant football coach in August 2007 when he was sent to Balad, Iraq. He was assigned to Logistics Support Area Anaconda as a lieutenant colonel and commander of the Guard's 1203rd Engineer Battalion. The main task was to clear improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs. He missed the whole school year and returned in June 2008.
Vickers' wife, Joy, teaches English at Central, so she has felt his absence at home and at work. She joked that having her husband gone was "hell" and having him back is "hell too."
"I have all the respect in the world for single-parent households," she said. "With one child it was bad enough; with multiple children, I don't know how they do it."
Seven years ago, when he had 20 years in the Guard and was eligible to file for retirement, Vickers told his wife why he he would continue serve if she agreed: "You know, Joy, if I don't do this, who does? Somebody's got to do this. If I don't, who will?"
Vickers rewarded his wife and son with a Christmas vacation to the Cayman Islands for toughing out his deployment.
"The sacrifices that she has made, I don't think people understand," Vickers said. "It's more difficult on the families than it is on the soldiers. I've heard people say that quite a bit, but I don't think everybody really comprehends that."
Vickers noted the fitting sermon he heard Sunday from his pastor, Dexter James, at Central Baptist Church.
"God gives you certain talents, and if you're going to maximize those for Him, then you need to do everything you can with whatever he gives you," Vickers said. "I believe He gave me the ability to be an effective leader, and I need to do that."
He plans to meet Wednesday with the 1,300 students, grade by grade. His message: "You've got to appreciate what you have. I mean, we've got so much. Even a country like Kuwait, which is filthy rich, they have so many restrictions. Our students need to take advantage of the opportunities they have. No matter what your God-given ability is, you can always outwork somebody."
And his message for the teachers: "Every student should be given an opportunity. Let's don't discard someone because he never comes with a pencil. What's his home life like? What's his situation? Some of these kids came to school today because we have heat. We've got to remember that."
The impact of such a compassionate teaching attitude hit home for Vickers thousands of miles away in Kuwait, where the colonel heard someone holler "Coach Vickers!" in his unit's dining hall.
It was Eric Armour, a civilian contractor a former Central student. Vickers had taught him math and coached him in B-team basketball 18 years ago.
Armour told Vickers, "I just want to thank you for being hard on us and making me do what I was supposed to do in the classroom. You don't know what a difference you made in my life."
Asked what that moment meant to him, Vickers smiled and said, "That's what it's all about."
Josh Laney, the career and technical education director at Central, served as interim principal. Laney said the school was fully behind Vickers' choice.
"I've not heard a single person ask, 'Didn't he care about Central?' It's more along the lines of, 'He cares about all of us, and he's making that sacrifice,'" Laney said. "So we're just willing to pick up his weight at home while he's picking up our weight abroad."
Joe Blevins, the school system's director of operations and administration, said Vickers is an inspiration in the district.
"Tommy is one of those rare individuals that puts others before himself," Blevins said. " His students see first-hand what dedication to community and country looks like."