Great guys. Bad radio.
That’s my conclusion after having had the privilege of interviewing several Medal of Honor recipients over the years — the most recent of whom was former Navy SEAL Lt. Mike Thornton last week.
Don’t get me wrong. The stories about those who have received the nation’s highest recognition are unbelievable. They are universally patriotic. Their heroism is undeniable. But their humility makes interviewing them a challenge. They don’t much like a public reading of their official citations. Invariably, they are the first to tell you that they did what countless other guys would have done in similar circumstances.
So with Thornton, I had a plan.
Suspecting he’d never tell the story of what happened that day in Vietnam in 1972 for which his bravery and intrepidity was acknowledged, I kept him on hold while I read aloud his citation, thereby giving him no opportunity to interrupt:
“… Upon learning that the senior adviser had been hit by enemy fire and was believed to be dead, \[Petty Officer\] Thornton returned through a hail of fire to the lieutenant’s last position; quickly disposed of two enemy soldiers about to overrun the position; and succeeded in removing the seriously wounded and unconscious senior naval adviser to the water’s edge. He then inflated the lieutenant’s life jacket and towed him seaward for approximately two hours until picked up by support craft.”
Sure enough, as the interview began, Thornton immediately attempted to diffuse the attention from himself.
“The medals we wear so proudly around our neck belongs to every individual, every man and woman, who has served our great country of America, or going to serve,” he said.
“If you talk to all recipients, we never really care a whole lot about medals one way or the other.”
So unassuming are these fellows as a group that in the case of Thornton, he wouldn’t even respond when I asked him which other MOH story he found most compelling.
“They’re all incredible as far as I’m concerned. Because it’s not about us, it’s about what we’re trying to do. It’s about somebody else’s life. And that’s what the Medal of Honor is all about. You sacrifice your life to save somebody else’s life.”
Thornton is one of seven MOH recipients expected in Philadelphia this Tuesday to raise money for local charities. The others, all of whom served in Vietnam, are former Army Lt. Brian Thacker; retired Marine Col. Harvey “Barney” Barnum; retired Army Sgt. Maj. Jon Cavaiani; former Army Capt. Paul Bucha (invited, not yet confirmed); former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey; and retired Navy SEAL Lt. Tom Norris.
The event is called “Proud to Serve,” and the seven are scheduled to guest-bartend at both Irish Pubs, at 12th and Walnut and 20th and Walnut in Philadelphia. All of the money they make in tips will be donated to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation (MC-LEF) and the Travis Manion Foundation. (First Lt. Travis Manion, a Bucks County native, was killed in Iraq in April 2007.) Admission is $10.
And here’s a kicker about Thornton: He was recognized for saving the life of Norris, who was already under consideration for the MOH — for separate events. Norris, too, is expected to bartend Tuesday.
“On 11 April, after a devastating mortar and rocket attack on the small FOB \[forward operating base\], Lt. Norris led a three-man team on two unsuccessful rescue attempts for the second pilot. On the afternoon of the 12th, a forward air controller located the pilot and notified Lt. Norris. Dressed in fishermen disguises and using a sampan, Lt. Norris and one Vietnamese traveled throughout that night and found the injured pilot at dawn. Covering the pilot with bamboo and vegetation, they began the return journey, successfully evading a North Vietnamese patrol. Approaching the FOB, they came under heavy machine-gun fire. Lt. Norris called in an air strike, which provided suppression fire and a smoke screen, allowing the rescue party to reach the FOB.”
If that sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because you saw the movie it inspired, Bat 21, with Gene Hackman.
I once asked another MOH recipient, retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs, if he often thinks about the day on which he displayed the courage that earned him the award. He told me no. And then he said:
“If you ask any Medal of Honor recipient — and you can ask Jack Lucas this, too — we’ll all tell you pretty much the same thing: We don’t wear the awards for ourselves. But we wear it for all those who can’t, all those troops who fought valiantly and didn’t come back, who did valorous things nobody saw, or whoever saw it were killed.”
Even when they are closemouthed, they speak volumes.