Both men were blown into the air by incoming fire from the USS Newport News. Again, Thornton lifted Norris from the ground and ran another 300 yards to the open sea. Once in the water, he lashed his life vest to Norris, and then grabbed one of the other SEALS, who had been wounded in the hip and couldn't swim. Buoying his two wounded comrades, Thornton swam for more than two hours before the three were rescued by the same junk that had dropped them off 16 hours earlier.
That wasn't the last time Thornton rescued his officer. On Oct. 15, 1973, Lt. Thornton was on his way to receive his Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon. Under doctor's orders, Norris, who was still recovering at Bethesda Naval Hospital, wasn't allowed to attend the ceremony. That didn't sit well with Thornton, who dropped by the hospital and helped Norris out a back door.
Three years later, Norris received his own Medal of Honor for an earlier mission during which he rescued two downed airmen from North Vietnam.
It is hard to know what makes a man charge off into the maw of near-certain death to save another. But hearing these heroes speak and reading their stories, two common characteristics stand out -- humility and modesty. As Thornton remarked during Tuesday night's ceremony, honor belongs not to men like him who attend receptions and enjoy the hugs of children and grandchildren, but to the more than a million Americans who have paid the ultimate price.
At a time when Americans bemoan the lack of positive role models, there are at least 103 real heroes living discreet lives in quiet neighborhoods across this nation.
We have no paucity of role models. What we have is a failure to notice them.
(If you would like to make a tax deductible donation (tax I.D. number 52-6056376) to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, send your donation to: Congressional Medal of Honor Society/ 40 Patriots Point Road/ Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina 29464)
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