NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Wren Thomas is an average guy with one of the world's most mind-blowing stories. In his 50 years, Thomas has been through more than most people ever will. He didn't experience the dark side, however, until just recently.
The Maurice resident spent his early years in Champaign, Illinois, with his mother, father and four sisters.
"It was a really fun childhood," he says. "Back then, we just hung around a lot."
After graduating high school in 1984, Thomas moved to Louisiana for a job in the oil field. He started working offshore as a deckhand on the supply boats.
During that time, he met his wife at a club in Morgan City, and life remained stable for the next few years.
"In 1989, I joined the Marine Corps for a different life, a different career," Thomas says. "I got out on a hardship discharge after a year-and-a-half because my wife had scoliosis and they couldn't take care of her."
In September 1990, he returned to Louisiana and settled in Lafayette. He started working offshore again to pursue a career as a captain.
"I worked up the chain," Thomas explains. "I worked a lot. I had two sons by then, Blake and Dillon."
Unfortunately, his marriage didn't withstand the test of time. In 2001, Thomas and his wife split up, and he returned to Illinois.
"I was still working offshore," he says. "I joined (oil supply service company) Edison Chouest and ultimately went overseas."
Thomas spent years working out of India and Nigeria, where he had a 60-days-on, 30-days-off schedule.
During this time — thanks to the wonders of Facebook — he rekindled his relationship with a childhood friend and they got married in 2011.
"We built a new house in Homer, Illinois, and we had a farm, animals," Thomas recalls. "Everything was going real good."
Little did he know that his entire world was about to flip upside down. At this point, Thomas had been assigned to Nigeria for a couple years, but it wasn't until 2013 that he ran into problems. He felt as though something wasn't right.
"I call it my sixth sense," he says. "I had flown to Nigeria, and I had been threatened. The company had been threatened by the Nigerians, and they threatened to kill me one time. A week before everything happened, they wrote a letter to the company, saying if they didn't hire people from their local village, they would kidnap the crews and burn the boats."
At 3 a.m. on Oct. 23, 2013, Thomas' life was forever changed. He was in his cabin on the boat, lying in bed, when he heard a knock on his door.
"My mate on watch woke me up in a panic," Thomas recalls. "He said there were pirates onboard and that we had to get to the safe room."
The crew stayed in the engine room for about five hours before they were forced to surrender.
"They found an electric grinder and made a hole in the metal watertight door," Thomas says. "Once they did that, they started firing rounds into the room from their AKs."
That's when Thomas gave up.
"I said, 'We are gonna die. Either get everyone killed or surrender.' Bullets could have ricocheted everywhere in the room, so we surrendered."
The pirates took them up on the deck, put them in speedboats and headed deep into the swamps of Nigeria.
Thomas and his American chief engineer were imprisoned there for the next 18 days, subject to mind games, drugs, starvation, guns and death threats. The rest of the crew — all Nigerians — were spared.
"They played six or seven cell phones at once, blasting Dolly Parton and 50 Cent while they smoked crack, smoked pot and drank. They were heavily armed, and we had nothing. They told us when we first left our ship, that if anyone came looking for us, they would kill us immediately."
The pirates wanted ransom money, and it took more than two weeks for them to reach an agreement with Edison Chouest. Thomas will never forget the night when they were rescued.
"They took us up the river, and we met up with some Nigerians that worked for the company," he recalls. "They had the ransom money, and they made the trade. It was out in an old village, very desolate, like you see in the movies."
Thomas says the pirates beat up the guys who brought the money.
"We thought we were gonna die," he says. "It was scary, really scary."
Thomas and his crew were brought to a hotel by their managers. The next morning, after showering and eating "real good," they flew to Lagos, Nigeria, to meet with the FBI. After that, they returned to Louisiana for another debriefing at Edison Chouest's Galliano headquarters.
Thomas couldn't wait to fly home to Illinois but wasn't prepared for what would come next. The extreme nightmares and panic attacks started. He was always watching his back, constantly on alert and worried that something was about to happen. He had awful flashbacks to those dark weeks in the swamps and couldn't enter a restaurant or store without panicking.
Thomas was diagnosed with both severe and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Anything could set him off, as he couldn't identify the triggers.
"It could come with certain colors, music, noise," he explains. "It could be just about anything. It's really difficult to go through life — I could go to the movies today and start panicking or not. It's really hard for anyone who doesn't have it to understand it."
In June 2014, Thomas left his wife and moved to Houston for about a year before returning to Louisiana during summer 2015.
"In a normal marriage, everyone has problems," Thomas says. "With me having PTSD, those small problems got blown up. It's really difficult for anyone to have any control over my life at all. Just the simple, 'Where are you going?' could set me off. The normal marriage issues were way too difficult for even the best psychologist to understand."
He prayed for a godsend — and what happened next was nothing short of miraculous. Exactly two years after being kidnapped, Thomas found his soul mate. They saved each other, it was a purebred Rottweiler named Beaux.
"He is my guardian angel sent from God," he says. "He was born on the same day I was kidnapped."
Thomas had been searching for a service dog to cope with his PTSD. He contacted Tom Tackett of Tackett Service Dogs, based in California, and there were two available. He chose Beaux — and they saved each other's lives.
Thomas and Beaux are inseparable.
"He walks with me everywhere," Thomas said. "He keeps my anxiety level down. If I am at a cash register or an ATM, he has commands to watch my back. He can sense when I am getting anxiety. He starts rubbing on me, pushing on me. I will kneel down and start loving on him to calm down or leave the store."
It was a match made in heaven, and for the first time since the kidnapping, Thomas was able to retain a semblance of normalcy … until Beaux got sick.
He developed severe digestive problems and lost a lot of weight. Thomas took Beaux to St. Francis Veterinary Hospital in Lafayette, where Dr. Blythe Lyons ran a battery of extensive tests. Everything came back normal except some bloodwork, so she put Beaux on a medication regimen. Nothing was working.
Thomas sought help from Dr. Kirk Ryan at Louisiana State University.
"He did a biopsy," Thomas says. "And he showed signs of two rare intestinal diseases mostly seen in small dogs. Dr. Ryan worked with doctors in Germany to come up with a treatment plan."
After starting very strong medication and adjusting to a strict diet, Beaux started to recover.
"He needed me, and I needed him," Thomas says.
A few months ago, Thomas got an email from Dr. Ryan, asking if it would be OK to nominate Beaux for Louisiana's Pet of the Year.
"I said yeah, of course. Beaux is a reason to wake up, go to sleep. He saves my life every day. He has given me part of my life back. He sleeps with me in bed, wakes me up during nightmares. I will never fully have my life back, but what he's done, it's amazing, just amazing.”
Beaux's story resonated so deeply that he was named Pet of the Year and honored on Jan. 30, 2016, during a ceremony at the Shreveport Convention Center.
Thomas beamed with pride. He credits everything to Beaux and the amazing team of people who made their match possible. However, his battle is far from over, and the effects of his PTSD will most likely be with him forever.
"It's hard for me to trust anyone," Thomas says. "But everything that happened with Beaux, it's restoring my faith in humanity. I am realizing there are good people out there. Religiously, I know there's a God; I felt a lot of prayers while in captivity and now. I would just love to live a normal life again."
Thomas, who enjoys cooking, spending time with family and riding his motorcycle, reflects on the "really good life" that he would love to regain.
He ends with an important message: Service dogs are saving lives each day, and people need to acknowledge and respect that they're out in public taking their jobs seriously.
"Beaux does a vital job," he says. "When people stop to pet him or stare, it's hard for him to do his job. Our guys (soldiers) are gonna be coming back from overseas with PTSD, so we're gonna start seeing more of them in public."
If you happen to see Beaux "at work," take a moment to salute him for bringing his owner back to life.
"I love him more than anything," he says. "He's my baby. He's my life saver, my guardian angel."
Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com