When Paul Thornton graduated from Hermantown High School in 1997, he had one dream in mind—to fly. While looking at the least expensive options to become a pilot, he decided to enroll in the United States Air Force ROTC program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“All of the schools that I looked at with a pilot program were way too expensive,” he said, “so I decided to take my chances on being selected for pilot training in the air force.”
That was 13 years ago, long before the world changed so dramatically with a whole new war.
Thornton found out during his junior year at UMD that he would be going to pilot training. He spent a year at Aviano Air Base in Italy while he waited for that training. Then in 2002 he attended training in Columbus, Miss. During that time he did well enough to be selected to fly the F-16, which meant he needed to go to Phoenix, Ariz., for F-16 flight training.
Eventually Thornton was stationed back in Italy, where he spent three years, and was deployed to Balad, Iraq, where he flew over 53 combat missions during the heart of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Back then things on the ground were still pretty turbulent,” he explained. “Our job was to support the U.S. troops on the ground by providing armed over-watch. We used our targeting pods (infrared video cameras) to search areas around the good guys and detect the enemy before they could engage U.S. forces. When the guys on the ground got in trouble, we were there to first try to persuade the enemy to disengage by flying low and fast over their position to serve as a warning. When that didn’t work, sometimes we had to employ our ordinance in order to end the fight and allow the good guys to get out of the area safely. During that first deployment, I dropped five 500-pound bombs in support of ground troops. It is a great feeling to know that I was there for those guys in their time of need. Sometimes you could hear the fear in their voice over the radio. Helping them out of a bad situation was a very rewarding experience.”
In 2007 Thornton moved back to the United States and married Desiree, a woman he had met while training in Phoenix. For the last three years they have been stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, where he is an instructor pilot in an F-16 training unit.
“To watch a 25-year-old kid with only 200 hours of flight time go from struggling just to land the F-16 to employing the airplane in the most complex scenarios is incredibly rewarding,” he said.
Last December Thornton found out he was being deployed to Balad, Iraq, for the summer of 2010. A month later he and Desiree found out she was pregnant and due Oct. 5, 2010. Thornton said he has had a hard time missing out on the last four months of her pregnancy and prayed he would make it back in time for the birth of their baby. Fortunately, technology has been a friend to them, enabling them to talk or Skype daily.
“When I left for Iraq, my return date was in the second week of September,” he said. “However, that moved to the last week in September.”
Thornton tried everything he could think of to get back to his wife for the birth of the baby, especially when he found out she was ready sooner than expected.
While sitting in Qatar, Iraq, waiting for a way home, he was able to convince a 2-Star General to approve a change in his itinerary. Still, that wasn’t going to get him home for two more days. On Monday, Sept. 20, he talked to Desiree and found out the doctor wanted to initiate an emergency induction because the baby needed to be born.
“When I heard this, I knew I had to get home fast,” he said. At 3 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 21, he started making phone calls. His commander in Arizona and the doctor contacted the Red Cross and initiated an emergency message, which went to Balad, where all of the emergency leave paperwork is filed. The paperwork was then emailed to Qutar so he could get a commercial flight out of Doha.
“The problem was that I had missed the 3 a.m. shuttle to the airport, and the next shuttle didn’t leave until 4 p.m.,” he said. “There was a flight at 8 a.m. but I would have to find my own way to the airport from the base. At 4:30 a.m. I was running out of time. There were some safety colleagues in Qatar but I didn’t have their phone numbers in their dorm rooms and I didn’t know where their dorms were. I ended up hitchhiking to the part of the base that looked most likely to be the right place. I asked the first person I could find where the right dorm was, and of course, it was the farthest one from where I was. I ran with all of my gear (about 125 pounds) about a mile to the dorm and started searching for the room. It was just before 5 a.m. when I knocked on Maj. Don Rojas’ door. He was dead asleep and it took a few minutes to wake him up but he immediately agreed to bring me to the airport. He got his things together and we headed for the truck.”
After stopping at four different offices in order to sign out of the base, he finally drove out of the gate at 6:15 a.m.
“It was only the second time I had been off of a U.S. base in the last four-and-a-half months and the last time I had a full security team with me,” he said. “It is crazy what a difference about 400 miles can make.”
He took a direct flight from Doha International Airport to Washington, D.C. and called Desiree to let her know he was on his way. Her doctor said he could hold off for a while. He landed in Phoenix at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, just an hour after Desiree’s water was broken.
“My commander picked me up at the airport and coordinated for the airline to hold my baggage until I had time to pick it up,” he said. “We got to the hospital a little before 8 p.m., about 28 hours after I found out Desiree was going to be induced. Sadie Rayne Thornton was born at 1:47 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 22. She weighed 5 pounds 13 ounces. It was a crazy 50 hours or so, but I made it in time to be a part of the birth of the most beautiful little girl ever. I really appreciate everyone who helped get me home as fast as possible.”
Wrapping up the war
During his most recent stint in Iraq, Thornton said the situation there was much less dynamic. He spent four months as the Chief of Flight Safety at Balad Air Base.
“I managed all of the flight safety programs in Iraq, tracked in-flight emergencies for trend data and investigated flight mishaps,” he explained. “In the four months, I investigated and reported 20 flight-related mishaps and educated the flying community on the lessons from those mishaps in order to make things safer in the future.”
He was also able to fly Block 50 F-16s (the same planes, to which Duluth’s 148th Fighter Wing was recently upgraded) several times each week.
“I only had to support friendly ground troops in trouble a few times. One such mission was the last one of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I took off at 7 p.m. on Aug. 31 and was flying one of four F-16s airborne over Iraq at midnight when combat operations officially ended and Operation New Dawn began,” he said. “I spent the last hour of Operation Iraqi Freedom providing armed over watch for a U.S. convoy that had been attacked. At midnight, I was supporting an Iraqi Army mission.
“To be honest, the new operation will not change the missions flown by F-16s in Iraq,” he said. “We will still spend the majority of our time looking for insurgents trying to attack coalition forces. But I thought it was fitting that I spent the first 30 minutes of Operation New Dawn supporting the Iraqi Army.”
Thornton’s time in Iraq hasn’t been all work and no play. He said he’s quite proud that while he was deployed he grew a “Minnesota Twins rally ‘stache.”
“I started growing it after the All-Star break, and since then the Twins are the best team in baseball,” he said. “Desiree is not impressed. She told me I’d better not have the mustache when I get home. I tried to explain to her that I had to support the team and that the season could last until November. That is when she hung up on me. I’ve held out as long as possible, but I have a feeling the ‘stache’s days are numbered unless the Twins can convince her that they need me to keep it.”
One evening while at chow Thornton ran into another Hermantown High School graduate, Jason Grochowski, who graduated in 1996. Grochowski is deployed to Joint Base Balad for a year in the Army Reserves.
Thornton said he hopes to move back to the Duluth area at some point. He said that his blood may have thinned too much, however, for a Minnesota winter.
“Life wasn’t too bad while I was deployed, except for the unbearable heat,” he said. “The months of July and August were brutal, with high temperatures above 118 on most days. We had a week straight over 120, and the highest temperature ever recorded for this area at 125 happened more than once. September has finally brought the temps back down around 110, and it actually feels pretty good.”