WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE --
“Wow. I am humbled.”
Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Gregory "Billy Bob" Thornton reflected after being presented the Silver Star Medal - the third highest medal for valor in the military - in a private ceremony held at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force June 30.
Gen. Mike Holmes, commander, Air Combat Command, presided and detailed the extraordinary account of Thornton’s mission flying an A-10 in support of U.S. ground troops on April 6, 2003, during the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Holmes called the close air support mission “a story of three teammates, three friends, that came together on one of their toughest days to provide unbelievable service and support to their country.”
Then Capt, Thornton was with the 75th Fighter Squadron “Tiger Sharks,” flying from the recently captured Tallil Air Base as the combat-paired wingman to Lt. Col. Raymond “Donk” Strasburger. It was their second mission of the day looking for targets in a designated box of air space west of Baghdad.
Below them was Task Force 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor, a lightly armed unit racing across Iraq in the dash toward Baghdad. When the unit’s attached Air Force Ground Forward Air Controller checked in on the radio, Thornton and Strasburger immediately recognized the voice as belonging to “Coke,” a fellow member of their squadron.
The next radio call was brief and urgent, “We’re taking direct enemy tank fire and we need you here now.”
The two A-10 pilots unhesitatingly rolled in to a broiling sand storm, breaking out at low level with one mile visibility, using the Tigris River to find their targets, a Republican Guard force with T-72 tanks. Holmes said the two A-10s made multiple attack runs for more than 30 minutes at low-level exposing themselves to heavy anti-aircraft and missile fire.
According to the Silver Star citation, Thornton and Strasburger destroyed three T-72 tanks, six armored personnel carriers and numerous other vehicles.
Holmes added the mission still wasn’t over, the two Airmen returned to a completely dark runway at Tallil low on fuel and with the sand storm still raging. They managed to safely recover.
Holmes said that edited A-10 heads up display video from the historic mission is still used to train every A-10 pilot.
“In the word of retired Col. Jeffrey Sanderson, who was the armored unit commander on that day, ‘their A-10 attack easily ranks among the top heroic actions that I have personally witnessed during a long combat career,’” Holmes added.
For their heroism, Strasburger was awarded the Silver Star and Thornton the Distinguished Flying Cross, the fifth highest medal for valor.
Call out of the Blue
Several months ago Thornton got a surprise call from then ACC commander, Gen Hawk Carlisle. A review of combat awards conducted under the direction of former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James resulted in the upgrade for several Airmen, including the Silver Star for Thornton.
"I was actually driving to work when the general called to let me know, and I was shocked, surprised, thrilled, all kinds of emotions," said Thornton, now a Southwest Airlines pilot who lives in Monument, Colo.
On June 30, standing before his family, fellow former Tiger Sharks, and special guests including Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff, Gen. Dave Goldfein, Thornton gave an emotional thanks to his wife and all the families who face sending their loved ones to deploy and fight.
He credited the A-10 and brotherhood of Airmen who fly and support it to his successful mission. Thornton called the A-10 “magnificent…built for this mission.”
“The sound of her gun makes an enemy run and hide, but the distinct sound of her engines makes our friendly forces give a little bit more, get a little stronger…and help turn the tide of the battle.”
Referring to the members of his former unit, Thornton called them his “championship team,” saying that members of the unit pushed each other toward battlefield success.
“As good as that airplane is, its greatest asset is the men and women that fly it,” Thornton added.
Holmes said it was his honor and privilege to present Thornton the “long-delayed, well deserved” Silver Star.
“At the end of the (Secretary of the Air Force’s recognition and decorations) review, General Goldfein had this to say: “for 70 years, Airmen have answered the call by flying, running, or moving to the sound of the gun. The Airmen we are honoring with these awards join a long blue line of warriors who studied, trained and prepared so they were ready to answer the call when their moments arrive. I could not be prouder of them and their families for their courage, sacrifice, and professionalism.”