Thorsness visited Liberty Middle School.

Archived Story

Hero speaks at Liberty Middle School

Published 6:11pm Tuesday, December 20, 2011

BY ANNA DURRETT

“If the doorknob is on the inside, it’s a good day. You’ve got freedom.”

Those wise words were said by retired Air Force Col. Leo Thorsness, a Medal of Honor recipient who spoke at Liberty Middle School to two classes of seventh-grade social studies students on Friday, Dec. 2. Thorsness was a fighter pilot who became a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for six years.

The time Thorsness spent in abusive imprisonment made him aware of the priceless value of liberty.

“Enjoy your freedom,” said Thorsness. “You’ve got rights, and you’ve got freedoms. Take advantage of it. You can do anything you want.”

Thorsness also told the students to always remember to cherish friends, family, faith and fun, which Thorsness calls the Four F’s. He found these were the four things he and his fellow POWs talked about the most while imprisoned.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor for an air battle that took place not long before his plane was shot down and his subsequent capture. He learned he was nominated for the honor while he was a POW through the tap code, which he and his fellow soldiers used to communicate with each other by tapping on cell walls while in solitary confinement. Thorsness taught Durrett’s class the how to encode messages using the tap code, which involves placing letters in a grid that corresponds to the number of taps a letter is assigned.

Thorsness is a compassionate man who doesn’t have hatred for his captors.  He sees them as the unlucky ones because they happened to be born in North Vietnam during a bad time and given the job to torture prisoners.

“The only thing (they) learned was on a speaker… blasting propaganda,” said Thorsness. “They were just as smart as anyone in this classroom, but they never had any education.” Thorsness explained to the students the relative primitivism of his captors through a story about them not knowing how to work the zippers on his flight suit.

One of Thorsness’ granddaughters is in Rhonda Durrett’s class, the teacher whose students Thorsness visited. Durrett thought her student Sara Thorsness might be related to him, but she didn’t know for sure until a lesson on the Medal of Honor.

“About a month ago, I introduced my seventh grade class to the Medal of Honor and what it is,” said Durrett.

After class ended that day Sara thanked Durrett for the lesson and said her grandfather was a Medal of Honor recipient. Durrett started trying to arrange for Leo Thorsness to speak to her class after she knew Sara was indeed related to him.

Sara is happy to have her grandfather in her life.

“He is not special to me because of his reputation. He’s so special to me because he’s always there for me, and I love him for who he is inside.”

 

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