Chuck Lauer: A hero's advice on helping others

A colonel's personal mantra is for all of us to keep in mind, especially at this time of year when so many families and children need our help.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon in downtown Chicago sponsored by the investment firm Smith Barney. I almost didn't get to the affair because I had so many things going on that day, but it turned out to be one of the most inspirational gatherings I have ever attended.

The meeting was about the Medal of Honor, and a member of the Board of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation acted as the master of ceremonies. A recent recipient of the Medal of Honor spoke about his experiences in Afghanistan and what receiving the medal has meant to him. There wasn't a dry eye in the room, and he got a long standing ovation. After the luncheon finished we all filed out and were presented with copies of the book "The Medal of Honor," which I read right after I got back to my office.
 
The book is filled with the riveting stories of those who have received the Medal of Honor; if you have the privilege of reading the book your life will be changed forever. Maybe I was so captivated by it because I have a son who served in the Marines and his son, Chuck, who will this coming May graduate from the United State Naval Academy and has already chosen to follow in his dad's footsteps and become a Marine. Also, after serving two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean conflict, I have great memories of those years and all the great people I had the honor of serving with.

Maybe that's why I feel as I do — that we all are so lucky to have so many young men and women who protect us every day and keep us safe so we can enjoy a peaceful holiday season like this one.
 
So with that thought in mind, I hope you won't mind if I share with you the story of one of the Medal of Honor recipients and the advice he had for others.
 
Leo Thorsness enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1952 at the age of 19, largely because he had a brother serving in Korea. Though he didn't make it to Korea himself, he stayed in the military, becoming an officer and fighter pilot. In 1966, he went to Vietnam as part of a squadron of F-105s. The "Wild Weasel" was a specifically modified two-seat F-105 and had the job of finding and destroying surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. The Weasels were capable of lingering in target areas longer than other fighters, and suffered a high loss ratio as a result; not many Weasel pilots completed their 100-mission tours.
 
On April 19, 1967, Thorsness was on a mission deep in North Vietnam. He and his wingman took out an enemy SAM site with missiles, then destroyed a second site with bombs. In the second attack, the wingman radioed that his plane, hit by intense antiaircraft fire, was going down. "Turn toward the mountains and I'll keep you in sight," Thorsness told him. As the pilot and his backseater ejected from the damaged aircraft, Thorsness circled above to keep them in sight. Suddenly he saw an enemy MiG-17 fighter setting a gunnery pass on the parachutes. Although the Weasel was not designed for dogfights, Thorsness attacked the MiG and destroyed it with bursts from his gatling gun.
 
Dangerously low on fuel, Thorsness quickly refueled from a tanker and returned to the MiG-infested area to protect the downed crew from North Vietnamese soldiers. When his rear-seat weapons officer spotted four more MiGs in the area, he turned back through a barrage of North Vietnamese missiles to engage them. He hit another one (although he never got credit for the kill because his gun camera had run out of film) and drove the remaining enemy planes away.

Heading for Udorn Royal Thai Air Base, the closest U.S. airfield, Thorsness climbed to 35,000 feet. Seventy miles from base, with his fuel tanks empty, he pulled the throttle to idle knowing he could glide two miles for each 1,000 feet he fell. Just as he was landing, the F-105's engine ran out of fuel and shut down.
 
Two weeks later he was shot down over North Vietnam on his 93rd mission. He bailed out and was captured, and wound up as a prisoner of war in the "Hanoi Hilton," where he ran into the two F-105 crew members he had tried to rescue. Despite his courageous intervention that April day, it turned out several of the downed crew members were captured.

After two years of unremitting torture, he learned, through a secret "tap code" among the prisoners, that his name had been submitted for the Medal of Honor. (The officer in charge of writing Thorsness' citation had been shot down himself and brought to the same prison.)
 
When the war ended in 1973, Thorsness was released and sent home. He had knee injuries, sustained when he bailed out of his plane at 600 knots, and back injuries as a result of torture. He received the Medal of Honor on Oct. 15, 1973, from President Richard Nixon. "We've been waiting for you for six years," President Nixon told him. "Welcome home."
 
After retiring from the Air Force as a colonel, Thorsness was an executive with Litton Industries and later served the people of Washington as a state senator. In 2002, he started speaking on his personal mantra, "Do what's right — help others."
 
Colonel Thorsness' advice is for all of us to keep in mind, especially at this time of year when so many families and children need our help. It is without doubt the right thing to do, and I know that all of you feel the same way I do.

My very best wishes for a great holiday season and God bless the United States of America.

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