As a Medal of Honor recipient and former Prisoner of War, retired Col. Leo Thorsness’s life mantra after returning home from the Vietnam War was “Faith, Family, Friends and Fun.”
With the support of Air Force senior leaders, his wife, Gaylee, and daughter, Dawn, kept those words close as they said their final goodbye to Thorsness during his interment at Arlington National Cemetery Feb. 14, 2018.
Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on April 19, 1967. That day, Thorsness, an F-105 Thunderchief pilot, was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. According to his citation, the pilot and his wingman attacked and silenced a SAM site with air-to-ground missiles, then destroyed a second SAM site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Thorsness’ wingman was shot down and the two crewmembers abandoned their aircraft.
Thorsness kept the crewmembers in sight while simultaneously destroying an MIG-17 aircraft. Despite being dangerously low on fuel, he went on to deter four more MIGs from the scene while allowing another friendly aircraft to refuel from a nearby tanker, preventing further loss of life and aircraft.
“During combat, when faced with life-defying decisions, he thought, ‘If not me, who? And if not now, when?’ This is what he was thinking during his F-105 Wild Weasel missions, and explains his decisions during the mission for which he received the Medal of Honor,” Dawn said.
Just 11 days after this mission, Thorsness was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. There was an 11-month span where his family didn’t know if he was dead or alive; his daughter was only 11 years old.
“Every morning I listened to the radio for news about the war,” Dawn remembered. “I would look at a world globe and trace where we lived over to North Vietnam. It didn’t seem so far on the globe. I wondered why we could not communicate with him. I could see where he was on the map but we were helpless to communicate.”
Back at home, the anti-war movement was gaining momentum, and for many military families, like the Thorsness, it was a difficult time.
“We had a husband and father fighting the war and we supported him, so it was very difficult,” Gaylee said. “We had reason to hate war more than the people protesting, but our country had made a decision to engage so we supported. It was a shock that people hated us for supporting the Vietnam War. It was a horrible time.”
Thorsness spent the next six years in captivity at several POW camps including Hanoi Hilton and Heartbreak Hotel. After his release and return home in 1973, he made the conscious effort to often remind people of how daily freedoms can be taken for granted.
“Leo’s life mantra after coming home from Vietnam was ‘Faith, Family, Friends, and Fun,’” his wife said. “He said no one in prison ever said they wished they had spent more time at the office. He often talked about how lucky he was to be born an American – where people are free.”
After 23 years of service and more than 5,000 flying hours, Thorsness retired from defending those freedoms as an Airman and immediately ran for political office. He served as a Washington State Senator from 1988 to 1992 and went on to serve on the board of directors for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
“Leo was always willing to work hard,” Gaylee said. “He carried great responsibility for his country and he did his job extremely well.”
As a civilian, Thorsness fought for the release of information on 30,000 Soldiers listed as either Prisoners of War or missing in action from conflicts dating back to World War II. Though no longer in the Air Force, he continued to serve as an ambassador for service member recognition.
Thorsness died May 2, 2017, and at the family’s request, was laid to rest amongst his brothers and sisters in arms.
“Leo had no bitterness and did not carry a grudge,” Gaylee said. “His values were right. How he carried out his life was right. He really was one of a kind. He was a great guy. My husband lived his life truthfully, honestly and honorably.”