In the opening days of the Iraq war, soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment were advancing on Baghdad when they ran into fierce resistance from the Iraqis.
Tanks and armored infantry fighting vehicles dug in on the eastern side of a bridge across the Tigris River unloaded on the troops.
In his A-10 Thunderbolt overhead, then-Capt. Gregory Thornton saw the task force's lead element taking fire and swung into action. He flew through a blinding sandstorm, dodged heavy anti-aircraft fire, and took out the Iraqi armor holding back the troops.
On Friday, Thornton — now a retired lieutenant colonel — will be honored for his bravery that day, April 6, 2003, by receiving the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest award for valor.
"This courageous and aggressive attack, while under withering fire and in poor weather, along with Captain Thornton's superior flying skills and true attack pilot grit, allowed Task Force 2-69 Armor to cross the Tigris River with minimal combat losses and successfully accomplish their objective of linking up with coalition forces completing the 360-degree encirclement of Baghdad," the citation accompanying Thornton's Silver Star read. "By his gallantry and devotion to duty, Captain Thornton has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."
Thornton and his leader fought for 33 minutes, braving "the ever-increasing hailstorm of anti-aircraft fire," and destroyed or demobilized three T-72 tanks, six armored personnel carriers and several utility vehicles that were within striking distance of the U.S. troops, the citation said. He flew his Warthog within 3,000 feet of the enemy several times to open fire with his 30mm Gatling gun, showing "complete disregard for his personal safety."
Before he retired, Thornton was assigned to the 75th Fighter Squadron at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. Gen. Mike Holmes, the head of Air Combat Command, will present the medal to Thornton in a ceremony Friday evening at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.