The word “hero” is too often used. Good people deserve accolades, but let's take care to ensure that we curate those described as heroic and reserve for the deserved. Heroism is endowed by the uncommon virtues of sacrifice, courage, selflessness, and commitment. It should be reserved for those who truly are heroes.
One such man is Colonel Leo Thorsness…and his doorknobs! Let me explain.
Born poor in rural North Dakota, Leo was raised to cherish what he called the “Four Fs”: Friends, Family, Faith, and Freedom. His life was a masterclass in all four.
At age 19, Leo wanted to join his big brother in the Korean War, so he enlisted in the Air Force…because that’s what brothers do. He later earned a commission and became an F-105 pilot – the “Wild Weasels.” It did not take long before Leo quickly became a tactical leader for his squadron and his Wing, and his leadership could not come soon enough. America was at war again, this time in Vietnam.
In 1967, then-Major Thorsness was flying a mission over Xuan Mai when another American aircraft became disabled and was an easy target for the SAM sites and MiGs in the area. The pilots were struck and punched out. Enemy aircraft began firing at the parachuting pilots, so Leo shot them down. Even though the F-105 was not an aircraft equipped for dogfighting, Leo engaged the MiGs and shot several down. Out of ammo and low on fuel, Leo continued to engage the MiGs and draw them away from the downed pilots. His efforts were successful, and Thorsness guided his aircraft out of danger; having run out of fuel, he glided to safety in Thailand. For this, Leo would receive the Medal of Honor. It is how Leo learned of his Medal of Honor that is most compelling.
Two weeks later, just seven missions shy of #100 that would send him home, Leo was shot down. He was injured, captured, and hauled off to Hell, otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Leo was tortured. He was put in solitary confinement for refusing to cooperate with the North Vietnamese. Leo was tortured some more. Thorsness endured the hardships of being a Prisoner of War for six years. He learned of his Medal of Honor while in Hanoi through the infamous “tap code”. He kept busy by literally walking the number of steps around his cell that he figured it would take to walk home to his wife, Gaylee, and daughter, Dawn. Leo never quit. Leo never gave up. Leo never stopped loving freedom.
When Leo was finally released from Hell, he returned home to his family. President Nixon finally put that Medal of Honor around Leo’s neck. By any measure, Leo had served his country honorably and was a hero.
So why, then, would he spend the next 50 years serving his country? Why spend the next 50 years serving veterans? Why spend the next 50 years serving communities? He did his time. He did his bit for God and country. He did all that was ever required of him and more. He did not owe this country one more second of his life.
But to Leo, his life was about spending it in service to others. That’s what his family taught him. That’s where his God led him. That’s why his friends loved him. That’s why freedom became him. Always with a smile. Those big blue eyes twinkled with persuasion. His love of American freedom.
Leo once said, “Every day where the doorknob is on the inside is a good day.” Those words encapsulate a man’s love for freedom and his dedication to God and country. To his family. To his fellow man. This hero lived every day of his life in the cause of freedom. Having fought for it. Having lost it. Having sacrificed for it. Having died loving it.
We lost Leo in 2017, and he is interned alongside so many heroic souls at Arlington National Cemetery, sharing his story of freedom and commitment once again for coming generations.
Too often, we tie our “good days” to profit, sales, or promotion. Leo tied it to the sweet taste of American freedom. We can still learn from Leo and his legacy. Our veterans have. Our warriors have. Our communities, our businesses, and our society are the benefactors of his legacy and others like it.
So when will you open the doors of your enterprise and hire your Leo? When will you open doors to the Leos in your community? You, too, can be a Leo!
After all, your doorknobs have always been on the inside.
Join our “Hearts 4 Leo” Campaign in February and help us honor the legacy of your loved ones and Leo. Learn more at americaswarriorpartnership.org/hearts4leo
About the Author:
Jay E. Town, Vice President and General Counsel at Gray Analytics, brings a wealth of legal and executive experience to the table. Formerly the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Jay oversaw a notable increase in federal prosecutions and introduced impactful programs, including the Prosecutor-to-Prosecutor Program (P3) and OD Leads System, which received recognition from the Attorney General of the United States.
With twelve years of service as a judge advocate in the Marine Corps, Jay achieved the rank of Major. His legal career includes distinguished roles in the Madison County District Attorney’s Office and private practice, representing major pharmaceutical, commercial, and surety companies. Actively engaged in charitable initiatives, Jay serves on the board of America’s Warrior Partnership, is a member of the National Association of Former United States Attorneys (NAFUSA), and has received the Medal of Honor from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution for his philanthropic endeavors. Jay is a member of the State Bars of Indiana, New Jersey, and Alabama, and is admitted to the Supreme Court of the United States. He resides in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife and daughter.