Did you Ever Wonder...

What Vietnam War battlefield rescue is memorialized depicting the only time when one Medal of Honor recipient was rescued by a person who would eventually be awarded a Medal of Honor for rescuing him?

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Situated at the entrance of the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida is a ten-foot statue entitled 'Swim Buddies'. As shown in the photograph, the bronze statue depicts a Vietnam War battlefield rescue whereby on 31 October 1972 during an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture operation against an enemy-occupied naval river base, Navy SEAL Petty Officer Michael "Mike" Thornton – under heavy fire from a numerically superior force – lifted critically injured and unconscious fellow SEAL Lieutenant Thomas "Tommy" Norris onto his shoulders and carried him in the darkness down the beach into the South China Sea surf. He then inflated the lieutenant's lifejacket and towed him seaward for about two hours until picked up by support craft. This statue not only reconstructs Petty Officer Thornton's selfless acts of valor, extraordinary courage and perseverance but also encompasses the ultimate importance of a "swim buddy" – a deeply rooted SEAL term which means each being responsible for the other's safety. According to Richard Kaiser, a retired SEAL Master Chief, a recipient of the Silver Star Medal for valour during the Battle of Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down) and executive director of the museum since 2012, "it was the only time this century when one Medal of Honor winner was rescued by a person who would eventually get a Medal of Honor for rescuing him".

The history of the United States Navy SEAL Teams is best encapsulated on the statue's plinth. "Navy SEAL (Sea-Air-Land) Teams were established by President Kennedy in 1962 to address emerging irregular conflicts. Their combat effectiveness in Southeast Asia proved the value of organizing carefully selected and highly trained men into small teams that could operate in remote areas with little support. / The legend of Navy SEALs, born in the jungles and on the rivers of Vietnam, was sustained and enhanced through their remarkably courageous and skillful actions in Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and dozens of other places during both conflict and peacetime missions. / SEALs have participated in every major U.S. military operation. They have also trained and supported foreign counterparts in their home countries, fought pirates on the open seas, rescued hostages under forbidding conditions and conducted numerous other sensitive and dangerous missions including the daring raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Their ferocity, discipline and precision in combat have made Navy SEALs a model for small unit operations globally. / SEALs operate in all environments under all conditions. Their strength is in their individual skill and valor, the operational versatility of their small teams, their specialized equipment and their fierce determination to accomplish any mission." Also engraved on the statue's plinth in gold lettering are the Navy SEAL Ethos: 'FORGED BY ADVERSITY' as well as the names of all Navy SEALs who have been awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor "for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty" including: Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Robert Joseph Kerry (1969, Vietnam); Lieutenant Thomas Rolland Norris (1972, Vietnam); Petty Officer Second Class Michael Edwin Thornton (1972, Vietnam); Lieutenant Michael Patrick Murphy (2005, Afghanistan) – Posthumous award; and Petty Officer Second Class Michael Anthony Monsoor (2006, Iraq) – Posthumous award. On 29 February 2016, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor for a sixth time to a Navy service member at a White House ceremony. Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward C. Byers Jr. was recognized for his courageous conduct while serving as part of the team that rescued an American hostage from Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan in 2012. Senior Chief Byers was present for the unveiling of his name on the Museum's Medal of Honour statue at the Navy SEAL Museum's Memorial Day Service, 13 May 2016. According to the U.S. Navy at time of presentation, Byers was one of only eight living Navy Medal of Honor recipients out of a total of 78 living recipients.

The most recent and 7th Navy SEAL in history to receive the Medal of Honor is retired Master Chief Special Warfare Operator Britt K. Slabinski who on 24 May 2018 became the 12th living service member to be awarded this highest recognition for bravery displayed in Afghanistan. President Donald J. Trump presented the medal during a White House ceremony for his actions while leading a team under heavy effective enemy fire in an attempt to rescue teammate Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts during Operation Anaconda in 2002. There have been 746 Medals of Honour awarded to Navy personnel – 308 of those were for actions during the Civil War.

The statue – sculpted by Paul Moore of Norman, Oklahoma and commissioned by former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, who is friends with Thornton – was unveiled on 9 November 2013 during the facility's 28th annual Muster reunion of active and retired SEALs and their families. The site at Fort Pierce was formely established in 1942 as a training base where original Naval Combat Demolition Unit "frogmen" trained to penetrate enemy beach obstacles and defenses. Predecessors of today's SEALs, these elite fighters trained for D-Day and other World War II amphibious assaults.

On this day, 9 November 2021, we commemorate the 8th anniversary of the dedication of the statue erected in honour of the Naval Special Warfare operators who have received the Medal of Honor and mark more than 59 years since the U.S. Navy SEALs were officially established by President Kennedy.

André M. Levesque

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