When Tom Norris flew into Afghanistan a few years ago to meet with servicemembers, the question he heard most often unsettled him.
“What do they think of us back home?”
The troops he met knew they were serving in an unpopular war that the American public, at large, knew very little about. Nevertheless, several polls had shown that support for servicemembers remained very high, even among war opponents.
Norris reassured those he saw that they were appreciated.
“They shouldn’t have to think about it,” Norris told Stars and Stripes while in Hawaii in 2012. “That should be a given.”
The turmoil of the Vietnam era is never far from the minds of veterans like Norris, and it pushes them that much harder to credit today’s servicemembers whenever they can.
When Norris entered the University of Maryland in the 1960s, he had planned on a career with the FBI. As the Vietnam War intensified and the draft expanded, he decided he would join the military on his own terms. Norris volunteered for the Navy soon after graduating college in 1967, then earned an officer’s commission and joined the SEALs.
On April 2, 1972, a missile downed a U.S. surveillance aircraft over enemy territory. Lt. Iceal Hambleton ejected and was the lone survivor, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s biography of Norris.
The first attempt to rescue Hambleton was a disaster, leaving 10 Americans dead, two captured and two more missing behind North Vietnamese lines.
On April 10, Norris volunteered to find them. He led a five-man team through the jungle toward one of the downed rescue pilots, Lt. Mark Clark, who was told over his survival radio to float downriver.
Norris saw Clark float by, but couldn’t rescue him because of a nearby North Vietnamese patrol. He later jumped in the river and guided Clark back to a forward operating base on April 11.
Later that day, a heavy attack on the base killed two of the SEALS on his team.
The next day, Norris led a team back out to find Hambleton. They were unsuccessful, so he tried again April 13. This time, a pilot pinpointed Hambleton’s location.
Norris and a Vietnamese commando dressed as fishermen boarded a small wooden boat and hid Hambleton under vegetation, according to news reports. The boat later came under fire, but Norris called in an airstrike and the group made it back to safety.
Norris would be awarded the Medal of Honor for the rescue, but not until another SEAL’s heroics shined a light on Norris’ efforts.
While providing cover fire on a reconnaissance mission, enemy fire struck Norris in the head. Petty Officer Michael Thornton sprinted 500 yards to Norris’ position and killed two enemy soldiers standing over Norris’ broken body. Thornton swam for miles with Norris and another SEAL until being rescued.
Thornton received the Medal of Honor in 1973. In 1975, the declassification of Norris’ rescue effort prompted a review. After four years in the hospital, Norris accepted the Medal of Honor in 1976.
In between surgeries, Norris witnessed the poor treatment that some of his fellow Americans heaped on returning servicemembers.
“It wasn’t like today,” Norris said. “It was almost like all the vets didn’t want to admit being there. Because of the way things were when we returned, we swore that [disrespect] would never happen again.”
Norris left the military, but hadn’t given up on joining the FBI. The bureau’s director wrote to him personally, offering to waive his disabilities if he could pass the same test as other agents, according to an account from Navyseals.com. Norris served 20 years with the FBI, including a stint as an assault team leader on a hostage rescue team.
“Doors open that never would have been open before” after he received the Medal of Honor, Norris said. “But with that comes responsibility.”
Norris then repeated what has become a catchphrase for Medal of Honor recipients, who tend to be very mindful of all the award represents.
“It’s harder to wear the thing than it was to earn it,” Norris said.