GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Do what’s right. Help others. And never forget four things of utmost importance in life: Family, friends, faith and fun.
That was the sort of wisdom students at Gettysburg Area Middle School heard on Friday as several Medal of Honor recipients stopped in to share their advice — and their unique stories of wartime bravery — during a 10 a.m. history class.
Retired Air Force Col. Leo K. Thorsness recounted how he was awarded the nation's highest military honor for his actions as a pilot of an F-105 aircraft that was outnumbered by enemy MiGs. In that April 19, 1967, air battle, Thorsness repeatedly engaged the enemy aircraft to distract MiGs threatening other U.S. aircraft and to protect other aircrew who had been shot down and were parachuting to the ground.
On April 30, 1967, flying his 93rd mission in Vietnam, Thorsness was shot down and spent the next six years as a prisoner of war.
The Gettysburg students were intrigued to hear Thorsness, 81, recount how he communicated with fellow prisoners by tapping on the floor or on the walls to send coded messages to each other.
He also told how his wife was presented with his Medal of Honor in secret by President Richard Nixon in 1971 while he was still a prisoner, and how he learned of the award only after he was released from the Vietnamese prison on Feb. 18, 1973.
Retired Marine Col. Wesley L. Fox, 82, said he became enamored with the military as a boy during World War II. But he was too young to join then, and as the war came to an end he thought he’d spend the rest of his life farming – a lifelong passion of his. But then the Korean War started, and he quickly made a beeline to the Marine Corps to enlist. In that conflict, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor in combat, among other medals.
Then came Vietnam. The battle for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor occurred on Feb. 22, 1969. By that time, Fox was an officer leading a company of Marines that was attacked by a much larger enemy force. By the time the battle ended, more than 100 of the enemy were dead, compared to a dozen of his Marines, he said.
Fox also gave warnings about cigarettes and alcohol – two things that could cut a person’s life short, he told the children. He told a humorous story about getting sick after his first smoking episode. The friend who gave him the cigarette told him he’d get used to it if he kept smoking, but Fox said he was smart enough to know if you had to get used to liking something, then it probably wasn’t good for you.
The children laughed as Fox told how ridiculous it was to hold a candy cigarette between your fingers, as he did, to make others think you were smoking a real cigarette, so they would accept you. He warned that being overly concerned about what others think of you can lead you down a wrong path.
Following the presentation, Fox, Thorsness and Medal of Honor recipient Robert Patterson, 65, addressed two additional, larger gatherings at the middle school, where they again recounted their stories and answered questions from students. The same educational outreach was happening at other schools in the area, as Medal of Honor recipients gathering in Gettysburg for their annual convention fanned out to engage young people.
Meanwhile, up the street a few miles from the middle school, a town-hall forum moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, featured three more Medal of Honor recipients: Retired Marine Col. Barney Barnum, 73; Army veteran Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta, 28; and Army veteran Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha, 32.
After the forum, attendees flocked around the special guests of honor to shake their hands, get their autographs and have their pictures taken with them.
For Air National Guard Capt. Timothy Carlin, listening to their harrowing war stories was inspiring. “You know, you wake up sometimes, and it’s hard to go to work. And you look at them and go, ‘wow, my day was not that bad….’ It adds pep to your step, and you keep doing what you do.”
Carlin said a couple of members of his unit – the 193rd Special Operations Wing, stationed in Middletown, Pa. – had a startling realization while listening to Romesha share the details of his combat actions that led to his being awarded the Medal of Honor.
“They said, ‘hey, that was us doing that mission.’ They were on that plane,” Carlin said of an EC-130J aircraft that provided an aerial communications platform to coordinate combat for the troops on the ground and the fighter assets providing support from the air.
For his part, Romesha was quick to give praise and thanks to the 193rd unit members when they gathered around him, telling them he wouldn’t have been able to do what he did without their support.
That the awardees were so quick to deflect praise was the quality that impressed Sharon Siegel, a coach of a media team comprised of fifth graders from Matamoras, Pa., who came out to interview the Medal of Honor awardees.
“They truly do not believe that they are heroes,” noted Siegel. “And just to understand that kind of humbleness that makes people do things from their heart for their country, and to have our kids ‘get it,’ is so powerful.”