Air Force awards retired fighter pilot Silver Star for heroism in Iraq

Air Force Capt. Gregory Thornton on Friday night was awarded a Silver Star, the third highest medal for valor in the military, for his doing his part to help put down an assault on U.S. troops in Iraq.

The honor for the retired fighter pilot living in Monument, Colo., who now flies for Southwest Airlines, was bestowed in a private ceremony at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

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Air Force squadron mates had originally asked that Thornton, 47, receive the Silver Star. The Air Force agreed to the upgrade after a review of the mission years after the April 2003 battle.

He and fellow A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot Lt. Col. Raymond Strasburger engaged in a fierce battle with Iraqi Republican Guard troops firing tank rounds at U.S. soldiers on the other side of the Tigris River.

Strasburger, 56, a retired colonel, flew to Dayton with his wife from their home in Germany for Friday night’s event. Thornton and Strasburger were assigned to the 75th Fighter Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., during the Iraq war.

Strasburger was previously given the Silver Star for the combat mission.

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In an interview with the Dayton Daily News, he 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 Air Force record-keepers, Thornton and Strasburger made multiple passes under enemy fire, firing the Thunderbolt II's 30-mm gun and launching rockets and missiles "through very heavy anti-aircraft fire and blinding sandstorms to decimate an enemy Republican Guard force."

By the time the 33-minute attack was completed, the two aircraft destroyed three T-72 tanks, six armored personnel carriers "and multiple utility vehicles, all within striking distance of the friendly ground forces," the Air Force said in a citation that accompanies the award to Thornton.

Thornton's flying skills and "true attack pilot grit" allowed U.S. forces to cross the Tigris River with minimal combat losses and link up with coalition forces "completing a 360-degree encirclement of Baghdad."

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