Whoever believes, “All men are created equal,” never stood face-to-face with Michael E. Thornton.
Of course, I’m being facetious: All men are indeed created equal in the eyes of God and the law. But I do stand by what I’ve been saying for years: That is, retired Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient Mike Thornton could walk into any fraternity house in the country and instantly be the biggest, baddest man in the house. No exaggeration, and the guy is 60-years-old.
As I wrote last year, I’ve known Mike for about 15 years (now 16). I met him even before that (though he doesn’t remember the meeting) when I was a young Marine lance corporal in the mid-1980’s and Mike was a war-seasoned Navy SEAL officer wearing – above his myriad decorations – the loftiest American military award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
In the years since, I’ve written about Mike, spoken with him on national security issues, broken bread with him, and more recently discussed with him the forthcoming Medal of Honor Society’s 2010 convention to be held in Charleston, S.C. (the state from which Mike and I both hail).
This week, Mike – who now lives in Texas – was back home in S.C. where we met today in Columbia at a local Starbuck’s to discuss the convention and other things.
Mike walks-in wearing shorts, flip-flops, a garnet (Gamecock colored) golf shirt, a gold Medal of Honor ring, a wristband made of African deer horn, and a pair of Oakley sunglasses.
To say the guy is fit – though he says he’s not – is an understatement. Mike says his knees are bad, and he plans to get down to his fighting weight of 218 lbs. But at 258 lbs. he’s all chest, back, and shoulders; which may be the reason he continues to be able to knock out 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, and 20 pull-ups everyday. He also swims a lot (all SEALs do). And he used to be able to bench-press 400 lbs., though he never regularly trained with weights.
When it comes to energy, he has no equal. With Mike, it’s non-stop. All week, he’s been traveling around the state, not wasting a single hour, wining, dining, lunching, breakfasting, office-meeting, emailing, and phone-chatting with friends, family, reporters, military veterans, and potential convention donors. His schedule is outrageously tight, but he refuses no one.
“Mike’s a piece of work,” mutual friend and attorney Woody Cleveland (syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker’s husband) says. “Don’t we wish we all had that?”
The “that” Woody speaks of is Mike’s combination of physical strength, energy, and tenacity, which are also the things that saved Mike’s life – and the lives of two others (his commanding officer, SEAL Lt. Thomas R. Norris, and a South Vietnamese commando) – nearly 37-years-ago.
On Halloween 1972, Mike was with a joint American-South Vietnamese SEAL Team operating along the Qua Viet River in North Vietnam when the team was discovered and quickly surrounded by an enemy force that outnumbered them at least 10 to one.
Mike was wounded in the ensuing five-hour extremely close firefight.
The good guys tried to escape by fighting their way back to the beach. But when they regrouped near the water’s edge, Mike was informed by another team-member that Norris had been killed.
So Mike did the unthinkable: he raced back toward the enemy through a hailstorm of gunfire and grenades across several-hundred-yards to Norris’s last known position. There he found his commander’s seemingly lifeless form, shot in the head, and two enemy soldiers standing over him.
Mike killed the two soldiers, lifted Norris onto his shoulders, and doubled-back, dodging enemy bullets and grenades as well as incoming friendly Naval gunfire from the offshore USS Newport News.
When he hit the water, Mike tied Norris to his body and started swimming. Rounds were zinging past his head and zipping into the water all around him. When he saw one of the South Vietnamese commandos shot in the hip and unable to swim, Mike grabbed him too. Then – with both men strapped to his body – he swam for more than two hours before the three wounded men were rescued.
For his actions, Mike received the Medal of Honor.
Did he think he was going to die?
“I didn’t have time to think about it,” he said sipping a Starbuck’s dark-roast blend with a shot of espresso. “What I did know is that if I had left Tommy, I would have never been able to live with myself.”
And therein lies two of Mike’s other attributes – humility and a desire to sacrifice himself for his fellow man – two ingredients found in all 95 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, and their deceased 3,351 brothers and one sister (Civil War surgeon Mary Walker, whose Medal was rescinded and reinstated).
In Sept. 2010, America will pay tribute to its Medal of Honor recipients at the Medal of Honor Society’s national convention in Charleston, just down the road from where Mike and I met for coffee. What I find particularly interesting is that many of those planning and raising money for the event are the recipients themselves. And they’re doing it not for themselves, but to make sure the convention is a huge success and that it pays equal tribute to every single American soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman serving today.
So, yes, Mike may be the biggest, baddest man in the house. But like his 94 fellow living-recipients, he’s also the most humble and self-sacrificing.