A retired Lt. Col. is adding a Silver Star to his shadow box after Air Force officials decided to upgrade his Distinguished Flying Cross for events surrounding a 2003 A-10 mission in Iraq.
Then Capt. Gregory Thornton was flying a support mission in the skies above Iraq catching up on old times with a fellow A-10 jet pilot, serving on the ground as a forward air controller attached to a Task Force and Armor Battalion, when the conversation abruptly changed.
“He comes back on the radio and he says, ‘We’re taking direct enemy fire. We need you in here now.’ And it went from kind of catching up with one of our buddies to now going in and protecting him because he’s under fire,” Thornton tells the Dayton Daily News.
Nearby —his wingman — fellow A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot Lt. Col. Raymond Strasburger was piloting in a second Warthog and would soon engage together with Thornton in a fierce battle with Iraqi Republican Guard troops firing tank rounds at American soldiers on the other side of the Tigris River.
Air Combat Command commander Gen. James Holmes is expected to present the Silver Star to Thornton, 47, in a private ceremony Friday at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force for his effort to help thwart the assault against U.S. troops, according to the Dayton Daily News.
Thorton, currently a Southwest Airlines pilot living in Monument, Colo., tells the Dayton Daily News he’s “humbled” the Air Force decided to upgrade his valor award from the Distinguished Flying Cross he originally received.
“I was actually driving to work when the general called to let me know, and I was shocked, surprised, thrilled — all kinds of emotions,” Thornton tells the Dayton Daily News.
The Dayton Daily News reports his wingman, Strasburger, 56, flew to Dayton with his wife, Teresa, from their home in Germany for the ceremony. Thornton and Strasburger were assigned together in the 75th Fighter Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., during the Iraq war.
In an email sent to the Dayton Daily News while en route to Dayton, Strasburger, a retired colonel, who was previously awarded the Silver Star for the combat mission, lauded Thornton’s “unequivocal and heart-felt dedication to preserve the lives” of their fellow A-10 pilot and Army soldiers “under a hailstorm of heavy enemy fire on the ground, and to simultaneously destroy the enemy at the expense of his own life if that’s what it took.”
According to an Air Force narrative, Thornton and Strasburger made multiple passes under enemy fire, firing the Thunderbolt II’s 30-millimeter gun and launching rockets and missiles “through very heavy anti-aircraft fire and blinding sandstorms to decimate an enemy Republican Guard force.”
During the 33-minute attack, the two men destroyed three T-72 tanks, six armored personnel carriers “and several other enemy vehicles,” the Air Force said.
The memories are still vivid for Thornton, and he tells the Dayton Daily News the adrenaline was pumping, but attributes their success to training.
“You do so many different scenarios through training, and you just get comfortable in the airplane and it becomes a part of you,” he said. “The training kicked in. I didn’t feel scared at all.”
According to the citation, Thornton’s superior flying skills and true attack pilot grit, allowed the Task Force and Armor Battalion to successfully accomplish their objective of linking up with coalition forces completing the 360-degree encirclement of Baghdad.
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