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Chattanooga National Medal of Honor Museum: Recipient to speak at fundraiser

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Leo Thorsness is one of a dwindling number of men who've received the nation's highest honor for military valor.

Thorsness is among only 77 living Medal of Honor recipients, one of only 55 living Vietnam veterans who have the medal and one of only 18 airmen to receive the honor.

His piloting and protection of fellow airmen shot down during an April 19, 1967, raid on North Vietnamese anti-aircraft missile sights earned him the medal.

But that recognition wouldn't come for another six years because Thorsness was shot down 11 days after the raid and held as a prisoner of war until 1973.

On Saturday, the 82-year-old colonel will tell his story to an anticipated crowd of more than 100 at the Chattanooga Convention Center for the annual Chattanooga National Medal of Honor Museum fundraiser.

Museum Executive Director Jim Wade said the event is a kickoff to raise enough money to bring the museum back downtown from its location at Northgate Mall in Hixson.

Having Thorsness here to speak is a big help. Ticket sales are nearly double what they were a few years ago.

Thorsness enjoys supporting the Medal of Honor Society and its work in the past decade to share the values of courage, integrity and leadership to school-age children. But other than that, he often says no to requests to speak. And there are many.

Wade worked through the society to encourage Thorsness to make the trip. The colonel said Tuesday that he respects the work being done here to develop the museum and share the stories of medal recipients.

"I'm totally for that," Thorsness said. "Just trying to get the honor story out."

Since its inception in 1861, the medal has been awarded 3, 487 times. One woman, Mary Walker, was awarded the medal for the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861.

Awarding of the medal peaked with World War II, which saw 474 men receive the honor. Only seven are still living, one of whom is Signal Mountain resident Charles H. Coolidge.

In the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, there have been 13 medals awarded. Six of those recipients are living, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website.

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