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Legislative News and Views - Rep. Bob Dettmer (R)

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Happy Independence Day and Remembering Medal of Honor recipient Colonel Leo Thorsness

Monday, July 3, 2017

Dear Friends,

I hope you have enjoyed your summer so far. It has been wonderful spending more time with my family and in our district post-session, and I’m looking forward to celebrating Independence Day in our community.

On July 1st, a number of new laws went into effect that passed this session, including our historic investments in transportation and school funding. You can see a complete list of these newly enacted laws here.

This Independence Day, I’d like to take a second to honor the memory of one of the fighting men from our great state who recently passed away. Leo Thorsness, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from Minnesota, passed away on May 2nd. Born and raised in Walnut Grove, MN, Colonel Thorsness served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951-1973, flying combat missions in the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on April 19th, 1967.

His Medal of Honor citation reads:

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As pilot of an F- 105 aircraft, Lt. Col. Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lt. Col. Thorsness and his wingman attacked and silenced a surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles, and then destroyed a second surface-to-air missile site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Lt. Col. Thorsness' wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the 2 crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lt. Col. Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crewmembers in sight and relay their position to the Search and Rescue Center. During this maneuver, a MIG-17 was sighted in the area. Lt. Col. Thorsness immediately initiated an attack and destroyed the MIG. Because his aircraft was low on fuel, he was forced to depart the area in search of a tanker. Upon being advised that 2 helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew's position and that there were hostile MlGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lt. Col. Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew's position. As he approached the area, he spotted 4 MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MlGs, damaging 1 and driving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became apparent that an aircraft in the area was critically low on fuel and the crew would have to abandon the aircraft unless they could reach a tanker, Lt. Col. Thorsness, although critically short on fuel himself, helped to avert further possible loss of life and a friendly aircraft by recovering at a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely. Lt. Col. Thorsness' extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.”

Just 11 days after this act of heroism, Thorsness and his “backseat guy” Captain Harold Johnson were shot down over North Vietnam, and captured by enemy combatants. He spent 6 years as a prisoner of war, including 3 years of torture at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” and a year in solitary confinement due to his “uncooperativeness towards his captors.” Thorsness was released in 1973, and retired from the Air Force shortly thereafter due to injuries sustained while in captivity that medically disqualified him from flying.

After the war, Thorsness was elected to the Washington State Senate in 1988, where he lead legislative efforts to urge the federal government to release information regarding approximately 30,000 U.S. soldiers listed as either prisoners of war or missing in action in conflicts going back to World War II. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

The Star Tribune wrote an article about Leo’s life, which you can access here:

Colonel Thorsness’s legacy is truly extraordinary, and our state should feel honored to call him our own.

I hope you have a chance to celebrate the birth of our great nation with family and friends this week, and to honor those who have fought to maintain our freedom. Have a safe and relaxing 4th of July!