Salute our stupendous SEALs in the wake of the bin Laden operation

In light of the accomplishments May 1 of the SEALs of the U.S. Navy, this is an ideal moment to highlight and honor the extraordinary heroism of Mike Thornton and Tom Norris, two of only three SEALs who today wear the Medal of Honor.

 

Mike and Tom received their medals as a result of separate combat actions behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War. Mike's story is especially noteworthy since his combat action is the first time in more than 100 years in which a Medal of Honor recipient would save the life of another recipient.

MIKE THORNTON was born and brought up near Spartanburg, S.C. A troublemaker in high school, a judge gave him a choice: Go into the military or go to jail. Thornton chose the Navy. An excellent athlete, he excelled in his training.

In October 1972, Navy Lt. Tom Norris, Petty Officer Thornton and three other team members planned a nighttime raid into enemy territory in the northernmost section of South Vietnam. Unfortunately, they found themselves in North Vietnam. As they tried to return to the beach, they were discovered.

A firefight ensued with five SEALS battling about 300 North Vietnamese troops. Norris was shot in the head, and a fellow SEAL told Thornton that Norris was dead. A gravely concerned Thornton raced across 500 yards and found that Norris was still alive.

Constantly under fire, Thornton carried Norris to the beach and started to swim him out to sea. Then another escaping SEAL was shot through the hip and could no longer swim. Thornton grabbed the second SEAL. For the next two hours, Thornton swam both of his badly wounded comrades farther out to sea. They were finally picked up by a small South Vietnamese boat. When Thornton was stripped down, he had shrapnel wounds in his back and had been shot through the leg. All three SEALS survived.

Tom Norris' heroism on an earlier mission is also compelling. In April 1972, Norris infiltrated deep into enemy territory in an attempt to rescue two downed pilots. All previous attempts had failed. He rescued one pilot but could not locate the second.

Later upon learning from a forward air controller the whereabouts of the second pilot, Norris dressed himself as a fisherman, commandeered a small sampan and floated down a river all night. He found the injured pilot at dawn, covered him with reeds and floated to safety despite heavy enemy fire during much of his trip. His heroism was later featured in the movie Bat 21 .

HAVING LOST AN eye during his combat action with Thornton, Norris was medically retired from the Navy. His application to join the FBI was turned down, but his great friend Mike Thornton appealed directly to FBI Director William H. Webster. Webster, learning of Norris's extraordinary heroism, made an exception to the FBI policy of requiring agents to have good vision in both eyes.

Norris served the FBI for 20 years. He was an original member of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team as an assault team leader.

Would you like to learn more about the recruitment, training and combat actions of SEALs? Please read the gripping book Lone Survivor by Marc Luttrell.

If you are interested in the life stories of the three SEALs who wear the Medal of Honor -- Thornton, Norris and former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey -- I suggest another book: Medal of Honor, by Peter Collier. This best-selling book highlights our living and recently deceased Medal of Honor recipients, and outlines the history of the medal on this 150th anniversary of its creation.

There may be some lessons that can be drawn by examining the failed attempts to kill Osama bin Laden in 2001 and 2002 under the direction of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet and Centcom commander Gen. Tommy Franks. The best books are Kill Bin Laden: A Delta Force Commander's Account of the Hunt for the World's Most Wanted Man, by Dalton Fury; and Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander, by Gary Berntsen.

THE SUCCESS OF Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; CIA Director Leon Panetta; Joint Special Operations Commander Vice Admiral William H. McRaven; and the team of SEALS and Army helicopter crews that performed so magnificently deserves close examination. Although some aspects of the May 1 operation should remain highly classified for many years, much can be revealed.

Learning from both our failures and our success should serve us well in the years ahead as we seek out other monsters who threaten our freedoms.

(The writer -- a retired U.S. Air Force major general -- is the president of the board of trustees of the Augusta Museum of History, and secretary of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. His e-mail address is genpsmith@aol.com.)

 

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